News & Insights  |  Newsletters

Presidential Bee Memo Brings Publicity to Agency Efforts

July 2014

Bee populations are declining.  In response, federal agencies actively have sought solutions to improve bee health and habitat.  These efforts—most commonly spearheaded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—have included major pollinator summits, regular working and focus groups to address possible causes of bee mortality, and amendments to pesticide labels.  As of last Friday, the President has also entered the fray.  On June 19, he issued a Presidential Memorandum, designed to create a “Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.”

The Contents of the Executive Memorandum

The Memorandum recognizes a need to reverse “severe” losses to pollinators that contribute “more than $15 billion in value” annually to the United States economy.  Discussion of pollinator health—led by several large coalitions of commercial beekeepers—is often tied to managed honey bee colonies but also includes native bee species, of which there are nearly 4,000 species in the United States, and Monarch butterflies (the number of Monarchs annually migrating from Mexico to Canada has dropped precipitously).  The new federal strategy consists of three primary actions:

  • Establishment of a Pollinator Health Task Force.  This Task Force will be led by the Secretary of USDA and the Administrator of EPA and includes the heads or their designated representatives of 14 other executive departments, agencies and offices.
  • Issuance of a National Pollinator Health Strategy within a 180-day period ending December 17, 2014.  This strategy includes a research action plan to focus federal efforts on pollinator decline, a public education plan to outline steps individuals and businesses can take to improve pollinator health, and a public-private partnership strategy for projects that protect pollinators or their habitats and foraging areas.
  • Issuance of Agency-Specific Plans.  Each member agency of the Task Force will issue specific plans to “enhance pollinator habitat” and “improve pollinator health.”

This new federal strategy includes collaborative and individual goals.

At a collaborative level, the Pollinator Health Strategy “shall include explicit goals, milestones, and metrics.”  The Research Action Plan shall identify “best practices to reduce pollinator exposure to pesticides,” work to develop more pollinator-friendly seed mixes, and restore and improve pollinator habitat.

Individually, each agency must fulfill specific goals based on their areas of focus.  Unsurprisingly, the agency-specific plans of the USDA and the EPA warrant the closest scrutiny from both industry and environmental groups.  These agencies co-lead the Task Force and have built steady momentum in studying and responding to bee mortality over the past several years.

For its part, EPA's plan “shall assess the effect of pesticides, including neonicotinoids, on bee and other pollinator health” and “take action” based on this assessment.  President Obama also directed EPA to “expedite review of registration applications for new products targeting pests harmful to pollinators.”

In contrast, USDA shall “develop best management practices” for other agencies to follow that “enhance pollinator habitat” on federal land and shall provide technical assistance to states, farmers and ranchers to plant “the most suitable pollinator-friendly habitats.”

Something Old, Something New

The simple directives of the Executive Memorandum suggest that agencies are in the early stages of actions to protect pollinator health and habitat.  But that is far from true.   Instead, the tasks given to each agency promise little additional risk for industry or new hope for environmentalists.

At bottom, the Memorandum publicizes what the agencies are already doing, and have been doing over the past three years.  In fact, EPA and USDA could fulfill this directive merely by following business as usual.  As chronicled previously in this newsletter, EPA has been assessing the effects of pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, on bees for the past several years.  In September 2012, EPA released a Pollinator Risk Assessment Framework.  EPA now employs this framework to measure the risks of new pesticides on pollinators before registration (sulfoxaflor and cyantraniliprole products were two of the first pesticides registered that followed this pollinator risk assessment).  Soon after, USDA and EPA jointly held a Pollinator Summit to focus on the effects of neonicotinoid use in seed treatments.  Following these meetings, EPA issued two letters in 2013 to registrants of neonicotinoid pesticides to update the directions for use on existing products.  A Pollinator Protection Working Group has steadily implemented a label review process to limit effects on pollinators.  This group provides a status update at EPA's twice-yearly Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee Meetings, most recently in early June.  In tandem with updating its registration process, EPA also updated guidance in May 2013 to improve reporting of pesticide-related bee incidents in the fields.

These developments continue to the present.  On the same day the Executive Memorandum was issued, EPA issued a new document, “Guidance for Assessing Pesticide Risks to Bees,” that updates the September 2012 White Paper and that provides a more exhaustive assessment of the current science behind assessing the risk of pesticides to honey bees.  It also provides more guidance about EPA's planned approach to reviewing ecological data before registering a new pesticide product.

Nor is expedited approval of new pesticides targeting pests harmful to pollinators a new concept at EPA.  EPA has for several years fast-tracked approval of certain pesticides and miticides helpful in preventing attacks directly on hives.

Similarly, 2014 already has brought a lot of activity by USDA in line with the Executive Memorandum.  In February, USDA announced $3 million in new funding for Midwestern farmers and ranchers to improve conservation practices to improve the diversity and safety of food sources available to bees.  A month prior, USDA had awarded over $500,000 to university extension researchers to minimize impacts to bees foraging on pollinator attractive crops.

At the least, the Presidential Memorandum recognizes these developments from the USDA and EPA but it is not clear what—if any—impact it will have for pesticide companies, beekeepers, or potential environmental litigation.  Simply highlighting already-in-progress accomplishments would allow the agencies to more than comply with the Executive Memorandum.  Little surprise is likely to come from the agency-specific plans that are issued, at least for those that have been following the issues for the last few years.

The more interesting question, then, is not about the agency-specific goals of the memorandum.  Instead, the collaborative reports from the Task Force provide more potential for long-term effects on industry.  The Pollinator Research Action Plan, a cooperative report published by the 16 agencies comprising the Task Force, requires the use of explicit goals, milestones, and metrics to measure progress along a variety of goals, including “identification of existing and new methods and best practices to reduce pollinator exposure to pesticides.”

It's hard to imagine 16 agencies agreeing on much of anything.  But if EPA and USDA use their leadership role to shape the public dialogue on protection of honey bees and set metrics and timelines to reverse bee mortality trends, it could spark immediate changes in agency priorities, largely outside the context of public comment.  Keep an eye on December 17, when this report is issued.  It should be far more interesting than any plan of the individual agencies.