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U of I Entomologist Praises White House Plan To Help Bees, Pollinating Insects


A White House “national strategy” to reverse America’s declining honeybee and monarch butterfly populations is being praised by a University of Illinois scientist known for her research on the subject.

University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum says the plan is, to her knowledge, the federal government’s first comprehensive effort to address the decline in the number of pollinating insects.

“This appears to be really a landmark”, said Berenbaum said of the White House plan. “I don’t know how much will be implemented. That’s politics. At least the plan is there. And it is eminently feasible.”

Berenbaum was at the White House last year, where she received the National Medal of Science from President Obama, “for pioneering studies on chemical coevolution and the genetic basis of insect-plant interactions”, and for her public engagement work.

The White House plan calls for more research dollars aimed at reducing losses in honey bee colonies, and increasing monarch butterfly populations. Berenbaum says she’s particularly heartened to see that the strategy calls for studying bees as colonies or super-organism, and not just as individual insects. Berenbaum calls the change “biologically, completely and utterly appropriate and long overdue. As well as assessing long-term impacts, chronic impacts of pesticide exposure ---pesticide exposure at all life stages.”

Berenbaum referred to directives in the White House strategy to issue new guidelines for studying the toxicity of pesticides that might threaten honeybees, and to re-evaluate the neonicotinoid family of pesticides, to which honeybees appear particularly susceptible.

The plan would also require federal agencies to grow plants on federal lands that provide a diverse range of flowers that bees and other pollinating insects can depend on throughout the spring, summer and early fall.

“The whole diverse community of pollinators needs a steady supply of different flowers throughout all the seasons during which they’re active”, said Berenbaum. “And that’s not what we have in a lot of places. And it doesn’t take much to disrupt what diversity remains. Just any unusual weather event, and pollinators starve.”

Not everyone concerned about the decline in bee populations and other pollinators likes the White House strategy. The group Friends of the Earth says the federal government needs to suspend the use of neonicotinoids altogether. The White House plan would only bar new uses of the pesticide while studying their safety. But Friends of the Earth says neonicotinoids are “systemic bee-killing pesticides” and that their use needs to be ended immediately.

This article also draws on reporting by Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press.