Pollinators are under huge amounts of stress, struggling to survive as habitats are destroyed, systemic pesticides are applied to crops, and climate change throws off once-reliable weather patterns. Now, a new bill hopes to give these essential insects and animals a boost.
The bill, introduced Thursday by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), would increase funding and improve cooperation among federal agencies that are working on getting pollinator numbers back up. If signed into law, the bill would set a goal for the USDA and other agencies of conserving, restoring, or enhancing 3 million acres of forage habitat — i.e. fields of flowering plants and shrubs — a step towards the goal of 7 million acres of pollinator habitat set by the White House in 2014. It would also create more financial incentives for farmers to plant bee-friendly plants — including wildflowers, sunflowers, buckwheat, and native grasses — and using natural predators, instead of pesticides, to ward off pests. And it would create grant opportunities to fund programs that monitor pollinator health and numbers.
“It’s easy to forget about the critical role pollinators play in our food systems,” Merkley said in a statement. “But if we’re not careful, we will only realize their importance when it’s too late and our agricultural industry has been decimated by their disappearance. Let’s take action now instead.”
Merkley is right: Pollinators play an essential part in getting food on the plates of Americans — and people around the world. According to a report released earlier this year, 75 percent of global food crops depend on pollination, and $235–$577 billion worth of these crops are affected by pollinators every year. Some crops depend on highly specialized pollinators, and would cease to exist without them: The chocolate midge, for instance, is the only insect that can pollinate the cacao plant.
In the United States, much of the pollination of commercial crops is done by honeybees, which are trucked around the country to pollinate crops such as cauliflower, broccoli, raspberries, and almonds. But honeybees have had a rough time over the last several years: U.S. beekeepers lost 44 percent of their honeybee colonies between April 2015 and April 2016, losses that are far above the 18 or so percent that beekeepers say is economically viable, but that have become the norm in recent years. Scientists say multiple stressors are causing these losses in honeybee numbers, including pesticides — notably the widely-used, systemic neonicotinoids — the varroa mite and the deformed wing virus it spreads, and lack of healthy foraging ground.
These problems facing honeybees — and the similar threats facing wild pollinators, including monarch butterflies, native bees, birds, and bats — have drawn calls by activists, business owners, and members of Congress to protect pollinators by restricting or banning the use of neonicotinoids, which are sprayed on crops around the country and which have been found to be harmful to bees in large enough concentrations.
This week in particular — dubbed National Pollinator Week by the USDA and Department of Interior — has been a major one for pollinator activists. On Wednesday, Minnesota beekeeper James Cook parked a truck full of millions of dead bees outside of the Environmental Protection Agency, a stop that marked the end of the bus’s country-wide tour. He and other activists also delivered a 4-million-signature petition to the EPA, urging the agency to ban neonicotinoids and other bee-harming pesticides.
CREDIT: COURTESY OF FRIENDS OF THE EARTH
CREDIT: COURTESY OF FRIENDS OF THE EARTH
And on Thursday, native bees also got a bit of a boost. Photographer Clay Bolt, who specializes in bee and other insect photography, along with Days Edge Productions, released A Ghost in the Making, a 19 minute-long film about Bolt’s quest to find, photograph, and ultimately protect the rare rusty-patched bumblebee. The bee is facing threats similar to those affecting the commercial honey bee, and in fact, commercial bees themselves are likely a major threat to the rusty-patched,as they may be spreading diseases to their wild cousins.
Along with the film, which you can watch here, invertebrate conservation group the Xerces Society has launched a petition to get the rusty-patched bumblebee on the Endangered Species List. The bee, whose numbers have declined 87 percent in the last 15 years, would become the first bee in the United States to gain protection under the Act.
“We are, I think, uniquely in the history of the human species blind and deaf to signals that nature is giving us that things are going haywire,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) said at a briefing on pollinators Wednesday, where a shortened version of the movie was shown. “We need to learn to pay attention.”