USDA, EPA need to do more on bees, GAO says

By Stephen Davies

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WASHINGTON, March 11, 2016 - A Government Accountability Office report released Friday suggests that USDA hasn't been adequately monitoring declines in native bee populations.

“USDA has increased monitoring of honey bee colonies managed by beekeepers to better estimate losses nationwide, but does not have a mechanism in place to coordinate the monitoring of wild, native bees that the White House Pollinator Health Task Force's May 2015 strategy directs USDA and other federal agencies to conduct,” according to the report requested by Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California, and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

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The GAO report recommended that USDA increase monitoring of native bee populations and evaluate the effectiveness of its farm conservation programs on promoting pollinator health. The department agreed the recommendations were valid, but said implementation would be delayed due to scarce resources.

It would be “physically and fiscally impossible” to monitor all of the approximately 4,000 species of native bees in the U.S., USDA Chief Scientist Catherine Woteki said in response to GAO's recommendations. However, she said the Agricultural Research Service would be working this year to determine the historic distribution of a common set of “sentinel” bee species identified with help from the Interior Department.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is also in the process of “develop(ing) a feature in its conservation planning database to enable tracking on all acres on which conservation practices are planned and applied that will provide a benefit to pollinators, not just those acres from targeted pollinator initiatives, such as the NRCS Honey Bee effort,” Woteki said.

GAO recommended that NRCS and the Farm Service Agency “increase evaluation of the effectiveness of their efforts to restore and enhance bee habitat plantings across the nation, including identifying gaps in expertise and technical assistance funding available to field offices.”

GAO, citing the White House Pollinator Health Task Force's May 2015 strategy, also recommended EPA identify the most commonly used tank mixtures to evaluate the effects on bees. “Beekeepers have raised concern that these mixtures of pesticide products may have synergistic effects on bees, meaning that the effect of the combination is greater than the sum of the effects of the individual pesticides,” GAO said.


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EPA said “there is opportunity to identify some commonly used tank mixtures,” but assessing their risks, given the wide variety of combinations, “can be challenging, and determining the specific combination to test … could be difficult to identify at the national level.”

EPA Assistant Administrator James Jones, who responded to the GAO draft, said his agency may be able to use data from California “to identify chemicals that are used in particularly vulnerable scenarios (e.g., almonds, blueberries, cherries during pollination services) in California. By November 2017, the EPA will conduct a case study of honey bees in almond crops and determine the most commonly used tank mixtures for this scenario.”

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