WASHINGTON — In hopes of boosting the local bee population and raising awareness about the threats facing the planet’s most important pollinators, second lady Karen Pence has installed a honeybee hive at the vice presidential residence in Washington.
Pence and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue unveiled the new hive — home to a growing population of some 20,000 bees — at an event Tuesday and “urged Americans to do their own part to help reverse” an ongoing worldwide decline in the bee population, according to a White House release.
Tiffany Finck-Haynes, an expert in bee populations at the nonprofit advocacy group Friends of the Earth, called the White House request “extremely hypocritical” in light of the administration’s proposed cuts to funding for environmental protection.
“They’re not putting their money where their mouth is, based on their proposed budget cuts to critical agencies that are needed to help protect bees, butterflies and other pollinators,” Finck-Hayes told HuffPost.
In a statement accompanying the White House release, Pence highlighted the importance of pollinators — not only bees, but butterflies, birds and bats — to America’s food supply. Bees alone pollinate 75 percent of the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the United States and add at least $15 billion in economic value to the country’s agricultural industry.
A 2016 report by a United Nations group, though, concluded that about 40 percent of invertebrate pollinator species – particularly bees and butterflies – are facing extinction.
The number of managed honey bee colonies in the U.S., meanwhile, has plummeted from about 6 million in the 1940s to about 2.5 million today, according to the Agriculture Department. The decline has been attributed to several factors, including habitat loss, disease, the parasitic varroa mite, malnutrition and pesticide use.
Ongoing colony loss, Pence said, “presents a serious challenge to our ability to produce many of the agricultural products that we enjoy today.”
Perdue said that farmers “have no better friends and few harder workers than the honeybee,” and that the rate by which populations are dwindling “represents a diverse mix of challenges requiring a wide range of solutions.”
But as President Donald Trump’s administration, including Vice President Mike Pence, work to slash funding for scientific agencies, roll back Obama-era policies to combat climate change and loosen industry regulations, including on pesticides, critics question how bee welfare stands to improve.
The Trump administration has proposed gutting by 31 percent funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates pesticides that studies have shown to pose a risk to bees. The Agriculture and Interior departments, which play a role in monitoring and maintaining pollinator populations, are facing cuts of 20 and 12 percent, respectively.
In March, the rusty patched bumble bee became the first bumble bee — and the first of any bee species in the contiguous United States — to land on the endangered species list. But the protection came only after a delay by the Trump administration.
Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bee as endangered in January, that designation was frozen until March 21 as part of a sweeping executive order by Trump that imposed a 60-day waiting period on new regulations. The Natural Resources Defense Council responded by suing the administration, arguing that it failed to give proper public notice of the delay, or safeguard “a species currently facing an imminent risk of extinction.”
Climate change, along with affecting the flowering of plants bees depend on, has been shown to shrink bees’ historical ranges. On this front, though, the Trump administration is working to roll back Obama-era regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Finck-Haynes said her concerns include whether EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will protect pollinators from potentially dangerous pesticides. In April, Pruitt went against his agency’s scientific recommendation and refused to ban a widely used pesticide that’s been linked to learning disabilities in children.
Finck-Haynes said she fears that move is a “good indication” of what to expect from Pruitt. Neonicotinoids, a widely used class of insecticides suspected of playing a role in the pollinators’ collapse, are among the pesticides under review at EPA. Called neonics for short, this class of pesticides have been shown to impair bumblebees’ learning and memory and impact their ability to forage.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and project director for the Bee Informed Partnership, told HuffPost he believes it’s too early to tell what impact the Trump administration will have on pollinators. He saw Tuesday’s announcement at the vice presidential residence, located on grounds at the U.S. Naval Observatory, as a good sign.
“I think that means they’re aware that there’s an issue,” he said. “And I think if people are aware, they realize the value in investing in solutions.”
Marla Spivak, a bee expert and a professor in entomology at the University of Minnesota, also welcomed the second lady’s interest in bee conservation. She noted that former first lady Michelle Obama kept a hive in the White House garden.
Like others, Spivak is concerned about the administration’s proposed budget cuts, but said much larger grassroots forces are at work, with more and more people realizing the importance of bees to human and environmental health.
“There’s a revolution in pollinators and habitat, and people are on board,” she told HuffPost. “There’s no stopping this.”