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White House bee report resembles state findings

Key elements of White House's plan to promote honeybee health mirrors recommendations by a Washington state study group.
Don Jenkins

Capital Press

Published on May 21, 2015 10:17AM

Honeybees on display March 5 on the Capitol Campus in Olympia. A new White House report proposes increasing bee forage by 7 million acres within five years.

Don Jenkins/Capital Press

Honeybees on display March 5 on the Capitol Campus in Olympia. A new White House report proposes increasing bee forage by 7 million acres within five years.

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A new Obama administration strategy to strengthen honeybees resembles recommendations last year by a Washington state study group.

The White House report, like the state study, calls on government to take a leading role in creating pollinator-friendly landscapes.

Dayton beekeeper Paul Hosticka, who served on the state group, said he hoped the federal plan will prod state officials into action.

“Our state report, I hate to say, fell on death ears, legislatively,” he said.

The White House’s task force set a goal of reducing wintertime honeybee losses to 15 percent in 10 years. Current losses are estimated at around 30 percent.

The task force, co-chaired by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, cited forage loss and parasitic Varroa mites as among the main reasons for beehive losses. The state report, released in December, came to the same conclusion.

The federal and state reports both reserved judgment on neonicotinoid pesticides. The European Union restricted neonicotinoids in 2013 for their purported ill effects on honeybees. The state group concluded the evidence was insufficient. The federal report proposes more research over the next three to five years by the EPA.

Washington State Beekeepers Association President Mark Emrich, a small-scale beekeeper in Thurston County, said he wished the White House had shown more urgency in determining whether neonicotinoids are harming bees.

“I hope to hell we can hang on that long,” he said.

Bee researcher Tim Lawrence, Washington State University’s Island County director, said Varroa mites and lack of bee forage are “by far the two biggest things.”

“Neonicotinoids are an unnecessary distraction, in my opinion,” said Lawrence, who also served on the state study group.

The White House proposes increasing federal spending to help pollinators, especially honeybees and monarch butterflies, from $34 million this year to $82 million next year.

Much of the money would be spent toward meeting the goal of restoring or enhancing 7 million acres for pollinators over the next five years. Half of the land would be federally owned, while the rest would be private lands or owned by state and local governments. Federal agencies would be instructed to plant bee forage on their property whenever possible.

Washington beekeepers lobbied state legislators this year to make state agencies more pollinator conscious. They also wanted the State Noxious Weed Control Board to test planting pollen-rich plants where weeds had been eradicated. Many weeds targeted by the board nourish bees. Legislation failed as lawmakers from agricultural districts questioned whether the tests might inadvertently introduce new problem plants.

The Obama administration also proposes to expedite review of chemicals to control Varroa mites. The blood-sucking parasites appeared in 1987 and have bedeviled U.S. beekeepers ever since. The EPA recently approved using oxalic acid, an organic compound, to control the pests.

Ephrata commercial beekeeper Tim Hiatt said the industry has “limped along” with organic treatments, but has had to resort to harsher chemicals at times. “We’re using pretty much everything we can find,” he said.

Hiatt said he routinely loses one-third of his hives each winter. Losses were once 5 percent, he said.

Hiatt’s bees spend crucial summer months in North Dakota, making honey and girding themselves for the winter by feeding on ample forage.

In addition to the Varroa mite, chemicals in the environment may be robbing bees of their vitality, he said.

Hiatt called the goal of cutting hive loses in half “noble,” but said it will hard to attain. “I’d say it’s a great goal, and that’s all that it is,” he said.

Numerous federal agencies are crafting pollinator protection programs. The Washington State Department of Agriculture is working on a plan to promote bee health, but no details have been set, agency spokesman Hector Castro said.


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