Energy & Environment

Critics worry Trump turning blind eye to honeybee decline


Democrats and environmentalists are sounding the alarm following a decision by the Trump administration to scale back research on bee populations.

Critics are warning that the decision eliminates a vital tool for monitoring how climate change and pesticides are reducing the number of bees worldwide, a development they say will have dire consequences for agriculture and the environment.

{mosads}The Department of Agriculture (USDA) quietly announced it was suspending its survey on bee populations following the Fourth of July holiday, pausing data collection for one of the few remaining government sources tracking bees and their rapid decline.

Bees pollinate a third of U.S. crops and are considered a “canary in the coal mine” for gauging how human activity affects the environment. Now, after years of declining bee populations, researchers and the federal government will have fewer tools to study the species.

Critics were quick to blast the decision.

“Trump’s Department of Agriculture cutting off this crucial data is an outrage. At a time when pollinators are dying at alarming rates, we should be gathering more data and working to solve the problem,” said. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who sponsored legislation earlier this year that would reduce the use of pesticides that are harmful to bees.

The USDA survey began in 2015, part of an Obama administration effort to track problems facing pollinators.

And advocates are worried about more than just the environmental fallout from decreasing bee populations.

Commercial bees, which are brought to farms to pollinate crops like blueberries, squash, apples and almonds, contribute an estimated $15 billion in value to the agriculture industry.

This winter an estimated 38 percent of commercial honeybees were lost, according to the Bee Informed Partnership, which, following the suspension of the USDA data collection program, is now one of the few sources left monitoring bee populations. While some bee loss is common over the winter, this year’s figure was up 7 percentage points from last year.

Initially, the source of trouble for bees was blamed on causes as varied as the use of Wi-Fi and cellphone towers, but increasingly a growing body of research points to pesticides as the culprit.

“It’s interesting because people still talk about colony collapse disorder as a mysterious thing, but we still know really well what’s going on with honeybees and pollinators,” said Lori Ann Burd, the environmental health director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Pesticides are a major factor that react synergistically with other issues.”

Environmentalists say the Trump administration is making the problem worse by allowing the use of pesticides damaging to bees.

In June, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued another emergency declaration to allow the spraying of sulfoxaflor, a kind of neonicotinoid — a powerful pesticide — which attacks the nervous system in bees.

Its use was temporarily barred after a lawsuit from beekeepers in 2015, but the EPA in 2016 changed its instructions for how to use the pesticide in a way regulators say will reduce the impact on bees.

But the agency’s Office of the Inspector General later flagged issues with the EPA’s repeated emergency declarations for pesticides, finding the agency did not have processes in place to determine how its emergency measures impact human and environmental health.

“Neonicotinoids make them eat less, so during a cold winter that means bees don’t have as much meat on their bones,” Burd said.

She said that as pesticides attack their nervous system, bees get confused. “They don’t respond as well to predators … cognitive loss is causing them to die as [they] get lost in the field.”

The USDA has said it was forced to suspend data collection on bees due to last year’s budget cuts. In announcing the move, the department said the decision “was not made lightly but was necessary given available fiscal and program resources” after the cuts.

USDA did not have an estimate for how much money would be saved from suspending data collection, saying that “fiscal savings for one program are difficult to pinpoint,” and said the move was temporary.

“[F]uture fiscal year budgets are not yet determined,” a spokesperson told The Hill. 

Lawmakers have expressed concern over the ramifications of the USDA’s decision.

“The decision to suspend data collection for the Honey Bee Colonies Report exemplifies the Trump Administration’s wrongheaded opposition to effective and commonsense sustainability research, a decision allegedly made because the Republican majority in Congress last year failed to provide the USDA the necessary funding to accomplish its core missions,” Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) said in a statement to The Hill.

“Without this data, the USDA will not be able to accurately track quarterly losses, growth, and movements of colonies on a state-by-state basis,” she added.

Kaptur, who has previously sponsored bee-related legislation, said House Democrats are working to ensure the department gets the funding it needs this year, including for a pollinator research coordinator.

The USDA has already ended three other bee data sets under the Trump administration, according to a report from CNN, but what made the latest data source, the Honey Bee Colonies report, unique was the USDA’s access to the numbers from a registry of beekeepers.

Other surveys are voluntary and may lack access to that hard data.

Karen Rennich, executive director of the Bee Informed Partnership, described their voluntary tally as “a survey of convenience.”

“Ours is ‘Take our survey, share it with your friends, make sure your friends take it,’ ” she said.

Though the trends from both data sources are usually similar, “it’s always nice to have a second data set to verify the data,” she said. “Nowhere in science do you only depend on one entity.”

Monitoring commercial bees also helps researchers who study wild bees, which are also under duress but much harder to track.

“The general trend from the current administration is to sort of remove data from making decisions,” said Rich Hatfield with Xerxes, which works to sustain habitat for bees and other insects.

“The more we sort of remove information gathering and start making decisions based on the economy or the gut of some administrator is really sort of problematic,” he continued. “We need to go back to the time of evidence-based decisionmaking so we know we’re doing best thing for securing, in this case, food security.”

He and others see the USDA’s move as a benefit to the pesticide industry.

“It’s a bow to industry is all it is,” Hatfield said. “It’s just saying, ‘Well let’s stop collecting this information, and then we can pretend it’s not happening.’ ”

Tags Earl Blumenauer Marcy Kaptur

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