Lawmakers push USDA and EPA to get in sync on bee health

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, May 13, 2015 -- Rep. Rodney Davis, chairman of the House Agriculture subcommittee on biotechnology, horticulture and research, said lawmakers are concerned about a lack of communication between USDA and EPA, particularly regarding issues on pollinator health.

“We see a disagreement between agencies that are supposed to be working together,” the Illinois Republican said today at a subcommittee hearing into the health of honey bees. “This is what frustrates us and why you're here,” Davis told the hearing's two witnesses: Jim Jones, assistant administrator at the EPA's office of Safety and Pollution Prevention, and Robert Johansson, USDA's acting chief economist.

One source of frustration has been a delay in the release of a federal strategy to protect honey bees. A White House Task Force on Pollinator Health, chaired by EPA and USDA, was supposed to release its plan, called for in a Presidential Memorandum, five months ago. The plan is a response to concerns about a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), in which worker bees from a honey bee colony abruptly disappear over winter that first gained public attention about a decade ago. Jones said release is expected within a couple of weeks.

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Earlier on Wednesday, USDA published the preliminary results of an annual survey of honey bee losses, which revealed fewer bees are dying over the winter, but summertime losses are growing. Although the number and output of honey bee colonies is increasing, high colony losses are making it difficult to meet rising demand for pollination services, USDA's Johansson said.

At the hearing, subcommittee Ranking Member Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., said agricultural and pollinator stakeholders should have been called as witnesses. “While I respect our witnesses' expertise, I believe members of the subcommittee would have been better served by first hearing from those on the ground, in the field,” she said.

Davis, however, said “We need these two agencies to work together…We need a report,” so that stakeholders can comment and contribute their solutions.

A letter last month from Johansson to EPA illustrated some of the agencies' differences. In the letter, Johansson said USDA disagrees with an EPA evaluation of a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids that concluded they do not have an economic benefit in soybean production. Some scientists have linked neonicotinoids to pollinator deaths.

Environmental groups are hoping the Obama administration adopts stricter regulations on neonicotinoids, while the agricultural community is encouraging regulatory agencies to recognize a range of factors that scientists say are impacting pollinator health.

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At the hearing, Jones said researchers are unable to identify a single cause of honey bee deaths, but they recognize the deaths are the result of “a complex interaction of a number of stressors,” including the varroa mite, pesticides, forage availability and travel.

Davis agreed that there was “overwhelming consensus within the scientific community” with this position. Still, he said environmental groups are entirely focused on neonicotinoids.

“The factor near the bottom of the scientific community's list seems to be the factor highest on the list of activist groups,” Davis said. 

Noting that pollinators contribute nearly $15 billion annually to the nation's economy, Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., said “I would hope in the future it wouldn't take Congress or the president to get agencies to work together on these issues.”

Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., asked how lawmakers can know the agencies' actions are not motivated by pressure from political groups. “We need certainty in the market,” he said, noting that commercial retailers, including Lowe's, are removing neonicotinoid pesticides from their shelves due to consumer fears about them. He noted that Florida's citrus industry, 95 percent of which is plagued with citrus greening disease, depends on neonicotinoids for survival.

In 2013, the European Union banned the three most widely used neonicotinoids, which are still used in the United States. After the ban, Yoho said environmental groups focused on Canada. “It's not based on science, it's based on political agenda,” Yoho said.

EPA's Jones insisted that his agency is “committed to sound science and the rule of law,” and is collaborating extensively with USDA.

The administration is already taking some actions in restricting pesticide use. EPA announced in April a moratorium on new or expanded uses of neonicotinoids while it evaluates the risks posed to pollinators. In October, the Council on Environmental Quality issued guidance for federal facilities and federal lands that included acquiring seeds and plants from nurseries that do not treat these items with systemic insecticides.

Yoho said it's “disturbing that EPA is moving to rule before the studies [on neonics] are done,” and that the agencies should put more emphasis on varroa mites and the viruses that come with them.

Jones noted that EPA is speeding up the schedule for re-evaluation of neonicotinoids, which is required under federal law. He also said that “most of the grief [EPA gets] is because we haven't canceled noenics.” He said the agency makes sure to expedite the review of any varroa mite control products submitted for approval.

Meanwhile, the preliminary results of USDA's annual survey of honey bees, conducted along with the Bee Informed Partnership and the Apiary Inspectors of America, found losses of managed honey bee colonies were 23.1 percent for the 2014-2015 winter but summer losses exceeded winter numbers for the first time, making annual losses for the year 42.1 percent.

"The winter loss numbers are more hopeful, especially combined with the fact that we have not seen much sign of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) for several years, but such high colony losses in the summer and year-round remain very troubling," said Jeff Pettis, a survey co-author and a senior entomologist at USDA's Agricultural Research Service Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland.

About two-thirds of the beekeepers responding to the survey reported losses greater than the 18.7 percent level that beekeepers say is economically acceptable. This underlines the seriousness of the health problems stressing honey bees in this country, Pettis said.

Johansson noted that the number of producing colonies and average honey production per colony grew from 2.6 million colonies producing 57 pounds per year in 2013 to 2.7 million colonies and 65 pounds per colony of production in 2014. However, Jones said overall the number of colonies is down from about 3 million in the 1980s.

Tiffany Finck-Haynes, food futures campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said in a press release: “These dire honey bee numbers add to the consistent pattern of unsustainable bee losses in recent years that threatens our food system. The science is clear -- we must take action now to protect these essential pollinators from bee-toxic pesticides.”

Friends of the Earth is part of an environmental group movement that got more than 4 million Americans to sign petitions to the Obama administration demanding immediate restrictions on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides.

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