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June 30, 2014
President forms pollinator task force

The depth and consequences of the U.S. pollinator crisis has reached the White House, and President Obama has responded with a memo outlining a response strategy that requires actions by all federal agencies that can contribute to a solution.  Much of the memo instructs agencies to enhance pollinator habitat in the lands they manage and to incorporate pollinator protections in projects such as Superfund remediations, agricultural conservation, and road construction.

Publication of the memo coincided with release of guidance on assessing pesticide risks to bees, which was jointly issued by the EPA, Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency, and California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation.

Commercial pollinator sector threatened

The pollinator crisis is best known for losses to honey bee colonies in areas where bees are critical to crop production, such as California’s commercial almond orchards.  The president’s memo states that honey bee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year in the United States.  If severe yearly losses in bee colonies continue, the commercial pollination industry may not be able to adequately recover, states the memo.

Scientists believe that bee losses are likely caused by a combination of stressors, including poor bee nutrition, loss of forage lands, parasites, pathogens, lack of genetic diversity, and exposure to pesticides.

The populations of other pollinators, including native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies, have also suffered significantly in recent years.  The memo notes that the number of migrating Monarch butterflies sank to the lowest recorded population level in 2013 to 2014, and there is an imminent risk of failed migration.

Strategy and action plan

The president directs the formation of a federal Pollinator Health Task Force to be cochaired by the EPA administrator and the Secretary of Agriculture.  The task force must include high-ranking representatives of 14 additional named federal agencies as well as any other agencies the cochairs designate.

Primarily, the Task Force has 180 days to produce a National Pollinator Health Strategy that must include explicit goals, milestones, and metrics to measure progress.  The strategy must lay out an action plan that focuses federal efforts on understanding, preventing, and recovering from pollinator losses.

In addition to including studies and plans for sharing data and technologies to monitor honey bee health with private and public stakeholders, the action plan must identify existing and new methods and best practices to reduce pollinator exposure to pesticides, new cost-effective ways to control bee pests and diseases; and strategies for targeting resources toward areas of high risk and restoration potential based on those areas that will yield the greatest expected net benefits.  A public education plan that outlines steps businesses and individuals can take to help address the loss of pollinators will also be included in the action plan.

Pesticide risk assessment

Guidance for Assessing Pesticide Risks to Bees is derived in part from a 2012 white paper the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act Scientific Advisory Panel wrote to describe the basic framework of a risk assessment process and the various tiers of refinement that may be required to support risk management decisions for pesticide registrations.

The risk assessment process for bees described consists of three phases—problem formulation, analysis, and risk characterization—and is tiered.  The first tier consists of a screening-level risk assessment intended to be sufficiently conservative such that chemicals that pass the screen are considered to represent a relatively low risk of adverse effects to bees.

For those chemicals that do not pass the initial screen, refinements in exposure estimates and/or mitigation measures may sufficiently reduce risk quotients (RQs) below levels of concern (LOCs) such that further refinements are not needed.  For chemicals where RQ values still exceed LOCs and, depending on risk management needs, additional refinements in exposure and/or effects estimates can be made based on studies with increasing levels of environmental realism.

At each step of the risk assessment process, the guidance says that potential risk mitigation measures and management options should be considered, which may reduce the need for additional studies since the likelihood of exposure has been sufficiently mitigated.

President’s memo

Risk assessment guidance

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