The Washington Post/Science May 22, 2015
A crucial agricultural workforce in the United States that produces some $15 billion worth of economic value every year, according to the Obama administration, has been struck by alarming losses recently, frightening advocates and demanding attention from Washington. Yes, the country's bees are in trouble.
President Obama has a plan to deal with the massive number of bee deaths. But this might be a problem that biotechnology will ultimately have to solve.
About 42 percent of honeybee colonies died over the past year, according to a new survey. Though that's bad, it's not the worst in the past decade. Perhaps some reduction in bee numbers is to be expected as a growing and more prosperous human population adapts land to its own uses. But beekeepers must split surviving colonies to make up for bee deaths, straining insects and making the business increasingly difficult and expensive.
Government experts blame a complex set of factors. The 1987 arrival of the varroa destructor mite, which feeds on honeybee blood, appears to have contributed, along with disease, pesticide use and a reduction in the type and variety of forage that bees need.
The Obama administration wants to curtail all of these factors, lowering the rate of hive loss to no more than 15 percent within a decade, which would be economically sustainable for the bee industry. Top on the list is altering public and private lands — in national parks, roadside strips, building complexes, even the White House South Lawn — to create 7 million acres of suitable pollinator habitat. This involves, among other things, identifying plants that provide nutrition for honeybees in hopes of encouraging their cultivation.
That would help, and Congress should provide the necessary funds. But to many advocates, those sorts of measures don't face up to what they see as the real problem: a class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids. The Environmental Protection Agency already has created rules restricting neonicotinoid use when bees are brought in to pollinate areas.
But anti-pesticide activists insist that persistent low-level exposure to neonicotinoids can harm bees, too. Plants absorb the pesticides even when bees aren't around, they say, which results in toxic pollen and nectar; even if contaminated bees don't die, these compounds can interfere with bees' capability to communicate, fly and navigate.
The European Union has put a moratorium on neonicotinoid use. The EPA is being more cautious. The agency isn't approving more uses for neonicotinoids, but it's also not taking products off the market yet, instead just limiting their application.
The agency says that the serious scientific work establishing the risk of low-level neonicotinoid exposure to bees is only just being done. Besides, the Obama administration's strategy notes, the goal is to "balance the unintended consequences of chemical exposure with the need for pest control."
In the end, that balance might be best achieved with new biotechnology: compounds and plants that target unwanted species while leaving others alone. As with many vexing environmental and resource challenges, governments and the public must be open to the promise of these sorts of innovations to improve both the environment and human welfare.