Honeybees are a crucial part of the American agricultural system. By flying around from plant to plant, they pollinate a third of everything we eat here in the United States—everything from nuts to produce to coffee. In one year alone, 2010, the bees helped foster the growth of more than $19 billion worth of crops. And even in this modern age, technology can't unseat the honeybee.
"You can't replace bees with a microrobot or an iPod or an app or anything," Sam Droege, a honeybee expert at the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, told National Geographic. We are completely dependent on bugs to retain the human race."
But for a few years now, the honeybees have been disappearing. In fact, in the last decade, more than half of all managed honeybee colonies have abruptly died off from a combination of pesticides, fungicides, and viruses that affect the seven known species of honeybee. And they're not the only ones suffering drastic population decline. Other insect pollinators, including various butterfly species, along with the charismatic monarch butterfly—although monarchs don't pollinate plants—are also rapidly disappearing. And that's bad news for the American environment and agricultural economy.
The problem has become serious enough to warrant executive action. Earlier this week, the White House announced a new plan of action to address the health of our country's pollinators, which an interagency task force will oversee.
"The problem is serious and requires immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems, avoid additional economic impact on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment," U.S. President Barack Obama wrote in a memorandum.
On Tuesday, the task force released its "National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators" [PDF]. The plan has three goals: Reduce winter mortality in honeybees to less than 15 percent in 10 years, increase the population of monarchs to 225 million butterflies wintering in a 15-acre property in Mexico, and restore 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next 5 years.
Experts disagree on how successful this 64-page plan will turn out to be.
"I don't think a President has ever made any kind of proclamation or statement about an insect before, pest or otherwise. It really shows how far we have come as a society," says Droege. But he worries that the real roadblock to saving the bees is our lack of understanding of them. Of the 4,000 bee species that are known to exist in North America, one-tenth of those don't even have names yet.
Meanwhile, Lori Ann Burd, director of the Environmental Health program at the Center for Biological Diversity, worries the plan fails to fully address the impact of pesticides.
"Countless studies have already found that pesticides, and particularly neonicotinoid insecticides, are a leading cause of pollinator declines," she said in a statement. "Our bees can't wait for more reports and evaluations. We need to save them by banning neonicotinoids, and especially neonicotinoid seed treatments, right now."
Though the plan may not go far enough for some, it's a step in the right direction, and couldn't have come at a moment too soon.
[h/t National Geographic]