US Could Better Protect Honey Bees, GAO Says

Bees Contribute $15 Billion a Year to Agricultural Economy

An Oregon State University beekeeper working with a hive of bees
Oregon State University Honey Bee Lab Studies Colony Collapse Disorder. Natalie Behring / Getty Images

In 2014, a presidential task force assigned the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to work together to protect the nation’s declining population of honey bees. Now the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says they could be doing a better job of it.

Background: Honey Bee Importance and Decline

Arguably the most economically important insects on Earth, beekeeper-managed honey bees and wild, native bees pollinate about one-third of all food crops consumed in the United States every year.

The bees’ service to agriculture has been conservatively valued at more than $15 billion a year by the USDA. Without being pollinated, many fruit and nut trees, and field-grown plants fail to bloom and produce viable crops.

In addition to jeopardizing America’s food security, failed food crops drive up the cost to taxpayers of federal crop insurance and related farm safety net programs.

However, about 29% of all known honey bee colonies in the U.S. have been dying every winter since 2006, according to the USDA. In 2014 alone, U.S. beekeepers reported to the USDA that they had lost about 40% of their honey bee colonies.

The Government’s Response to Bee Decline

Recognizing the importance the honey bee to U.S. food security and the economy, President Obama in 2014 issued an executive order creating the White House Pollinator Health Task Force. Made up of more than a dozen federal agencies, including USDA and EPA, the task force was assigned to create a national strategy to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators.

On May 19, 2015, the pollinator task force released its strategy with three main goals:

  • Reduce honey bee colony losses to economically sustainable levels;
  • Increase monarch butterfly numbers to protect the annual migration; and
  • Restore or enhance millions of acres of land for pollinators through combined government and private-sector action.

    As a key part of the pollinator protection strategy, the USDA was tasked with conducting monitoring, research and outreach, and conservation efforts intended to help protect bees and other pollinators.

    However, the GAO, as the GAO does so very well, found some shortcomings in this otherwise well-meaning federal government initiative.

    What the GAO Found: USDA

    In its report on the issue, the GAO told Congress that it would be the bees’ knees if the USDA would remove the “limitations” to its efforts under the national strategy that had been hampering its ability to properly protect honey bee health.  

    For example, noted the GAO, while the USDA had increased its efforts in monitoring beekeeper-managed honey bee hives, the agency had failed to create procedures for monitoring wild, native bees as directed by the White House Pollinator Health Task Force's national strategy.

    “Wild, native bees, which also pollinate crops, are not managed by beekeepers and are not as well studied,” wrote the GAO.

    The USDA responded that it had been too busy taking care of “other priorities” to develop a wild and native bee monitoring program, but agreed that it should do so.

    In addition, the 2008 Farm Bill provided funds for the USDA to create, restore, and enhance wild and native bee habitat on private land.

    While it had increased its efforts in that area, the USDA had failed to properly evaluate the results of those efforts, stated the GAO. For example, the GAO cited a USDA evaluation conducted in 2014 stating that the agency's staff needed “additional expertise” on implementing effective bee habitat conservation. However, the evaluation failed to define the expertise needed.

    “By evaluating gaps in expertise, USDA could better ensure the effectiveness of its efforts to restore and enhance bee habitat plantings across the nation,” wrote the GAO. The USDA agreed.

    What the GAO Found: EPA

    The EPA’s role in the nation bee conservation strategy is to protect wild and native honey bees from risks posed by pesticides. And according to the GAO, the EPA has done a fairly good job of it – up to a point.

    GAO reported that so far, the EPA had:

    • Issued federal regulations requiring that labels for certain pesticides indicate the products’ potential danger to bees;
    • Encourage beekeepers, farmers and others to report bee deaths that might have been caused by pesticides; and
    • Urging state and tribal governments to voluntarily develop and implement plans to work with farmers and beekeepers to choose and use pesticides determined to be harmless to bees.

    However, the champions of finding “howevers” -- the GAO -- found that while the EPA had “taken steps” to protect bees from pesticides, had so far failed to assess the risks posed be mixtures of various pesticides, as directed by the national strategy. Indeed, farmers typically apply more than one pesticide during a growing season. 

    While the EPA agreed that mixtures of pesticides, as often used in agriculture, may pose risks to bees, the agency said it does not have data on commonly used mixtures and did not know how it could identify them.

    But the GAO found that data on commonly used or recommended mixtures of pesticides are out there and could be collected from farmers, pesticide makers, and others.

    “By identifying the pesticide mixtures that farmers most commonly use on crops, EPA would have greater assurance that it could assess those mixtures to determine whether they pose greater risks than the sum of the risks posed by individual pesticides,” wrote the GAO.

    What the GAO Recommended

    In all, the GAO made seven recommendations, four to the Secretary of Agriculture and there to the Administrator of the EPA.

    Most importantly, the GAO recommended that the USDA better coordinate its efforts with other agencies to come up with a plan to monitor wild and native bees and that the EPA work with farmers and the agricultural chemicals industry to identify the risks posed by common mixtures of pesticides.

    The USDA and the EPA “generally” agreed with all of the GAO’s recommendations.

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    Your Citation
    Longley, Robert. "US Could Better Protect Honey Bees, GAO Says." ThoughtCo, Jul. 21, 2016, Longley, Robert. (2016, July 21). US Could Better Protect Honey Bees, GAO Says. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "US Could Better Protect Honey Bees, GAO Says." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 24, 2017).