Editorial: US steps up to address decline in honeybee numbers



Last modified: Friday, May 22, 2015

Our Pioneer Valley, a region dotted with farms, orchards and fields, makes an idyllic vision, one that conjures up “the land of milk and honey,” words from the Old Testament. Those words can be taken literally since the region provides much in the way of fresh dairy products, fruit, vegetables, plants, flowers and, yes, even honey.

This bounty isn’t just some side venture or secondary market. Agriculture in the Valley is a significant economic engine beyond providing those living in the area with fresh, local produce and a beautiful, living landscape.

Yet the economic engine’s path is far from straight and smooth. There’s a growing threat across the agricultural spectrum that has the area’s farmers, orchardists, beekeepers, scientists and researchers at such places as the University of Massachusetts Amherst worried: The loss of pollinators, like the honeybee.

The Obama administration, too, has been aware of a problem that has seen, in a little more than seven decades, a decline of the nation’s honeybee colonies from 5 million to 2.7 million.

That’s 40 percent of our bees gone. This past winter, the U.S. Agricultural Department reported that beekeepers lost 23.1 percent of their colonies. Last year, the USDA survey found that “losses remain above the level that beekeepers consider economically sustainable. ... Almost two-thirds of the beekeepers responding to the survey reported losses greater than the 18.9 percent level that beekeepers say is acceptable.”

The death of honeybees in previously unheard of numbers since the mid-2000s, here and around the world, has been attributed to what has been called Colony Collapse Disorder, a problem for which scientists have yet to determine a cause, let alone an answer. This disorder kills entire colonies of bees, leaving its queen, honey, and immature bees behind.

This particular threat isn’t the only issue imperiling pollinators like the honeybee. Scientists say loss of habitat, mites, other pests, disease and pesticides have contributed to the disappearance of honeybees and other pollinators.

Unchecked, the continued loss of pollinators will have a devastating impact on our food supply and economy. As the USDA points out, “Bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year. About one mouthful in three in our diet directly or indirectly benefits from honeybee pollination. Commercial production of many specialty crops like almonds and other tree nuts, berries, fruits and vegetables depend on pollination by honeybees. These are the foods that give our diet diversity, flavor, and nutrition.”

The White House this week unveiled a federal strategy aimed at reversing what’s happening with honeybees and other pollinators. Developed by the Pollinator Health Task Force, the plan looks to take a multi-pronged approach. The federal efforts focus on reducing honeybee losses during the winter, increasing monarch butterfly numbers and preserving and increasing valuable habitat for all pollinators.

Honeybees are most vulnerable during winter. The goal is to reduce these losses to no more than 15 percent within 10 years.

As for monarch butterflies, the idea is to increase the eastern population to 225 million butterflies occupying an area of approximately 15 acres in the overwintering grounds in Mexico, “through domestic/international actions and public-private partnerships, by 2020.” And with the habitat, the federal government is looking to restore or improve 7 million acres for pollinators over the next five years, again with the help of public/private partnerships.

Critics of the effort say the plan doesn’t pay enough attention to pesticides or wild bees, like bumble bees, which also play a critical role in pollination. They may be right. More money is needed for research and development of safer alternatives to pesticides that are a problem for bees.

Bees have long been an important part of the Pioneer Valley landscape. Following the Obama administration’s lead can help sustain the region’s heritage. After all, it was in Greenfield that Lorenzo L. Langstroth, the minister of the Second Congregational Church between 1843 and 1848, developed the movable frame beehive, a standard still in use today.




 


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