Opinion: Protecting Bee Health is a Long-Term Commitment

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By U.S. Congressman Austin Scott

For those in agriculture, harvest season is a busy time.  Farmers nurture their fields all year, which leads to feeding our families and much of the world.  Most growers involved in horticulture production know that their long hours are matched by the non-stop effort of bees, which remain a critical component of our nation's food supply.  The harvest of fruits, nuts, vegetables, ornamentals, and greenhouse crops are dependent upon the bee colonies in the United States.

Bees contribute an estimated $16 billion annually in added value to more than 30 percent of the crops we produce, and reports of colony losses in the United States are of great concern to anyone who cares about agriculture and food security.  The health of our bee colonies is affected by a number of pests and diseases including mites, various viruses, bacterial infections, and fungal diseases.  This spring, the House Agriculture Committee's Subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture held a public hearing to review current research and application of management strategies to control pests and diseases of these important pollinators.

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Although there are many factors affecting bee populations, perhaps none is as important as the varroa mite, an invasive parasite that has decimated bee colonies since its introduction to the United States in the late 1980s.

Beekeepers have had an increasingly difficult time managing these destructive pests and ensuring that sufficient bees are available to pollinate some of our most important crops.  These difficulties have been directly tied to higher over-wintering losses and poor colony health.  It is for these reasons that new products, more effective at protecting the bee from pests, must be developed.

Our examination of this problem during the spring hearing resulted in a renewed drive to intensify and coordinate efforts among many stakeholders to combat this pest.  As a result, I introduced a varroa-focused bill this week to help expedite the registration of new bee health technologies, while requiring regular progress reports from the government agencies involved in bee health research and regulation.  This is a critically important step in ensuring we protect these vital pollinators, but there is more work yet to do.

An important learning from our spring hearing was the need to improve nutritional opportunities for foraging bees, particularly among commercial beekeepers, who move their hives across the U.S. to meet seasonal crop pollination requirements. The abundance of federal lands provides a unique opportunity to help put our vast natural resources to work by providing alternative forage for the very pollinators which help sustain our food supply.  In the coming weeks, we will call for a Bee Nutrition and Forage Summit, working in conjunction with North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, to explore ways of creating more forage zones for pollinators, as a way to improve overall bee nutrition.

One challenge we face is that different federal agencies involved in the regulatory process have come to different conclusions based on the same scientific data.  That is why the House Agriculture Committee will direct the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure a uniform risk assessment process is adopted when making decisions on products already approved under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and/or the Plant Protection Act.  It is important that the U.S. government speak with uniformity to instill certainty and confidence when it comes to scientific risk assessment and regulatory policies.  This coordinated effort among agencies and stakeholders is needed to make useful and practical policy decisions.

Legislation focusing on the varroa mite and directives to federal agencies are only a few actions in a long term plan to address the wide range of factors attributing to the overall decline of the bee population.  Also, in the coming months, the subcommittee plans to conduct additional hearings to oversee other factors to ensure proactive action is taken to provide a better overall environment for bee population growth.

I am pleased with the bipartisan progress that has already being made, thanks to the concerted efforts among farmers, beekeepers, government, and the industry.  While pollinators continue to face challenges, there is some good news:  the number of bee colonies continues to increase, and this year we saw a significant decline in overwintering losses in North America and in Europe.  Farmers are adopting new management practices to protect pollinators, companies and universities are investing more money into productive bee health research, and ordinary citizens are taking action by planting bee-friendly gardens.

Over the years, we have learned that pollinator health a vital component of our nation's agricultural sustainability.  As Chairman of the House Agriculture subcommittee tasked with the oversight of this important issue, we are committed to ensuring that our federal government acts responsibly and decisively to protect both our pollinators and the farmers who depend on them.

About the author: U.S. Congressman Austin Scott (GA-08) is Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee's Subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture.

 

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