In 2006 there was a serious decline in the number of honey bee colonies in parts of Europe and the United States and it brought renewed concern about another Colony Collapse Disorder, which had last occurred in the mid-1990s.
Bee colonies rebounded quickly and are higher than ever but the question lingered; what caused these periodic collapses? Answers ranged from pests to viruses and pesticides and studies did nothing more than conclude "it's complicated". In June of 2014(1) the Obama administration created a task force to look into it and their report and an action plan just came out and the timing couldn't be better, because a new survey of bee losses has just been released as well.
Beekeepers surveyed reported losing over 40% of honey bee colonies(2), which sounds like a lot, but what does it really mean? Much of those deaths are expected and natural - a lot of bees die in the winter - and beekeeping has become a fad, so there are far more reported deaths that are related to amateurs than occurred in the past. It's within the normal range but that normal range, and how it is created, is part of the concern. To create evidence-based environmental policy requires more than a survey and the United States Department of Agriculture recognizes its sample set is not representative, about 15 percent of beekeepers respond, so the results would vary dramatically without really knowing if it is due to 'absence of dead bees' or survey methodology. For example, average colony loss for beekeepers was 42.2 percent in 2009/2010 and 2010-2011 was 38.4 percent(3), so 40 percent is right in between those.
What both scientists and the concerned public wanted to know was, are commercial bee losses the whole story? What about wild bees? Only seven bee species out of 20,000 (4) have a queen or produce honey and so can be detected in a 'colony collapse' and just one (almost all honey bees we see are Apis mellifera) is really being counted.
Given all those concerns, the Obama Administration was correct for convening experts to create an action plan.(5) Here is a report card for how they did:
Setting a baseline: Colony Collapse Disorders have happened for as long as people have kept records of bees, for over 1,000 years, but record-keeping has been too inconsistent to be scientifically valid. In 2015, USDA annual results still rely on uncontrolled surveys but unmanaged wild pollinators are a key concern, not just losses of beekeepers in a particular geographical area. By using more rigorous methods than an optional survey and training taxonomic professionals to be able to identify wild species, we can create real data and then real solutions. Grade: A+
Reduce honey bee colony losses during winter to no more than 15% within 10 years. We can't control winter and summer numbers are a better indicator of any unnatural causes, not winter ones. Grade: C-
Increase the Eastern population of the monarch butterfly Most people don't realize that over 200 million butterflies occupy just a few acres of land so it is important that overwintering grounds for these pollinators be maintained. But key overwintering grounds are in Mexico, so it is a worthy goal but hard for the U.S. to really control. Grade: B-
Increase pollinator habitat acreage. The federal government wants to make 7 million more acres of land better for pollinators. This is fine but unless they were in Wisconsin, Illinois and Pennsylvania in 2014, they aren't solving the problem that caused the government to get involved. Bee losses tend to change geographies, they shift for a variety of confirmed reasons related to virus breakouts, pests and harsh weather. We need pollinators everywhere because they work on a communal basis and strong colonies make up for the weak, so more federal lands are not a total solution but more wild land is good. Grade: B
Reducing pesticide drift. Some entomologists have found 150 chemical residues in pollen and wax gathered from beehives.(6) Those are all at sub-lethal levels but studies will need to be done to determine if some combination is having an effect. Environmentalists have created a magic bullet in a class of modern pesticides called neonicotinoids (7) and have been lobbying for bans but Australia had no colony collapses despite heavy use of these "neonics" and shifting geography of losses in Europe and the U.S. means banning something won't help. Scientists recognize that systemic tools like neonics are better for the environment than broad applications. CropLife America, which represents almost all manufacturers and distributors of pesticides in the U.S., has consistently called for comprehensive studies to determine how multi-factorial the pollinator problem is and better education on proper application of pesticides is welcomed by everyone. Grade: A
Overall grade: A solid B. No plan is perfect, and this won't satisfy everyone, but a rush to implement a political solution without first creating a foundation of evidence would bring little value. 35 percent of global food production relies on animal pollination and that is $24 billion just in the United States so our solutions need to be science-based. This strategy is an important first step in making that happen.
(1) Fact Sheet: The Economic Challenge Posed by Declining Pollinator Populations, Office of the Press Secretary, The White Househttps://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/06/20/fact-sheet-economic-challenge-posed-declining-pollinator-populations.
(2) Nation’s Beekeepers Lost 40 Percent of Bees in 2014-15 http://www.sciencecodex.com/nation_s_beekeepers_lost_40_percent_of_bees_in_201415-157570
(3) USDA/AIA survey reports 2010/2011 winter honey bee losses http://www.sciencecodex.com/usdaaia_survey_reports_20102011_winter_honey_bee_losses)
(4) Bees Are More Than Honey And Hives by Ellen Dorothea Moss, Science 2.0 May 12th 2015 http://www.science20.com/the_conversation/bees_are_more_than_honey_and_hives-155483
(5) POLLINATOR R ESEARCH ACTION PLAN Report of the Pollinator Health Task Force May 19, 2015 https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/Pollinator%20Research%20Action%20Plan%202015.pdf
(6) Mystery Malady Kills More Bees, Heightening Worry on Farms By Michael Wines MARCH 28, 2013 New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/29/science/earth/soaring-bee-deaths-in-2012-sound-alarm-on-malady.html
(7) Groups of Pesticides in Registration Review, EPA.gov http://www2.epa.gov/pesticide-reevaluation/groups-pesticides-registration-review