Pollinator Health

9/23/2020

Introduction

Butterfly on flower.

Pollinators play a key role in ecological health, the food system and the national economy. Many plants depend on pollinating animals, which can include ants, honey bees, native bees, birds, bats, butterflies, lizards and other insects.

Pollinators help to sustain the agriculture sector, including the production of fruits, vegetables and nuts. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service,  roughly one in three mouthfuls in American diets directly or indirectly benefit from honey bee production. Globally, between $235 and $577 billion worth of annual food production relies on the direct contribution of pollinators.

Honey bee populations in the U.S. have been falling in recent years. In 2017, there were 2.88 million honey bee colonies in the U.S., down 12% from the 3.28 million colonies in the country in 2012. While no single factor is causing the crisis, a combination of stressors contributes to the declining population. Inadequate diets, natural habitat loss, mite infestations (such as the Varroa mite), diseases, loss of genetic diversity and exposure to potentially harmful pesticides may contribute to population losses.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which causes rapid and unexpected bee loss within a hive, is also affecting honey bee populations. With the CCD phenomenon, worker bee populations disappear and leave behind the queen, young bees and significant reserves of honey. Without worker bees, the hive cannot sustain itself and eventually dies. While researchers do not know the exact cause of CCD, they are exploring the effects of pathogens, parasites, management stressors, pesticides and environmental stressors.

Honeybee on flower.

 State Action 

At least 28 states have enacted legislation on this topic in recent years. In 2019, at least 16 states— California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington—enacted legislation or adopted resolutions related to pollinator health. Legislation generally falls into one of five categories: research, pesticides, habitat protection, beekeeping and public awareness.

State Pollinator Laws

US map showing sates that have Pollinator laws.

Research

At least 10 states—California, Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia and Washington—have enacted legislation to study issues related to pollinator health. Topics covered include pesticide use, the beekeeping industry and Colony Collapse Disorder.

Examples of enacted legislation:
  • Connecticut (SB 231 – 2016): Convenes a group of experts to serve on a Pollinator Advisory Committee to inform the legislature on matters pertaining to pollinators in the state. 
  • Minnesota (HB 1545 – 2017): Appropriates funding to the University of Minnesota for pollinator research and outreach including, but not limited to, the identification and establishment of pollinator’s habitats.
  • Oklahoma (SB 229 – 2015): Authorizes the state Board of Agriculture to create a pollinator protection plan to protect the health of and mitigate the risks to honey bees and other managed pollinators. 
  • Vermont (HB 539 – 2016): Establishes a Pollinator Protection Committee to evaluate the causes of reduced pollinator populations and recommend measures to conserve and protect pollinator populations, including the study of best management practices for neonicotinoid pesticides.
  • Virginia (SB 356 – 2016): Directs the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to develop a pollinator protection strategy to promote the health of and mitigate the risks to honey bees and other pollinators, as well as ensuring a strong agricultural economy and apiary industry. The strategy must include voluntary best management practices for pesticide users, beekeepers, landowners and agricultural producers.

Pesticides

Man spraying pesticide on tree.Exposure to pesticides is one of multiple factors that may be contributing to the decline of bees and other pollinator populations. Neonicotinoids, a widely used class of insecticides developed in the 1990s, are believed to be particularly harmful. Unlike traditional insecticides applied to the surface of plants, neonicotinoids are absorbed into plant tissue and can be present in pollen and nectar, making them accessible to pollinators. At least 10 states—California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon and Vermont—have enacted legislation aimed at shielding pollinators from the effects of pesticides.

Examples of enacted legislation:
  • Connecticut (SB 231 – 2016): Directs the commissioner of agriculture, in coordination with others, to develop best practices for minimizing airborne liberation of neonicotinoid pesticide dust from treated seeds and mitigating the effects of such dust on pollinators. Requires the commissioner to classify all neonicotinoids that are labeled for treating plants as restricted use. 
  • Indiana (SB 314 – 2008): Prohibits individuals from producing, transporting, storing, handling or disposing of any pesticide or pesticide container in a manner that may cause injury to beneficial insects, including pollinators.
  • Hawaii (SR 136/HR 108 – 2019): Urges the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture to take measures to limit pollinator exposure to neonicotinoids.
  • Maryland (SB 198/HB 211 – 2016): Prohibits a person from selling a neonicotinoid pesticide unless the person also sells a restricted use pesticide and also does not allow for neonicotinoid pesticide use on or after a certain date unless certified otherwise.
  • Maryland (HB 1353- 2019): Authorizes the secretary of agriculture to implement a program to use a certain pesticide to control or eliminate nuisance insects in the state, and specifies that “nuisance insects” does not include pollinators.
  • Minnesota (HB 3172 – 2014): Authorizes the commissioner of agriculture to take enforcement action for violations of law that result in harm to pollinators, including applying a pesticide in a manner inconsistent with the product’s label. The law also authorizes the commissioner to assemble a group of experts to investigate pollinator deaths and illnesses and provides compensation in certain situations for bees killed by acute pesticide poisoning.
  • Minnesota (HB 2798 – 2014): Prohibits labeling or advertising a plant, plant material or nursery stock as beneficial to pollinators if the plant was treated with an insecticide that was absorbed by the plant and, as a result, the plant is lethal to pollinators.
  • Nebraska (LB 320- 2019): Amends the Nebraska Pesticide Act, changes provisions related to registration requirements, labeling, and application of pesticides.
  • Oregon (HB 4139 – 2014): Evaluates best management practices for applying neonicotinoids in a manner that avoids harm to pollinating insects.
  • Vermont (HB 869 – 2014): Requires the secretary of agriculture, food and markets to evaluate the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on human health and the health of bees and other pollinators.

Habitat Protection

Bees and other insects pollinate a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, yet many areas lack the habitat necessary to support them. At least 10 states—California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Vermont and Washington—have enacted legislation to protect and restore habitat suitable for pollinators.

Examples of enacted legislation:
  • California (AB 559 – 2015): Authorizes the Department of Fish and Wildlife to take actions to conserve habitat for monarch butterflies.
  • Illinois (HB 3092 – 2019): Creates the Native Prairie and Forage Preference Act and provides that state agencies should give preference to using native plants benefiting pollinators.
  • Kentucky (HB 175 – 2010): Directs state agencies to develop a plan to encourage coal licensees to locate and protect pollinator habitat on reclamation sites and to use high-value trees and shrubs to aid in pollen transfer.
  • Minnesota (SB 550 – 2017): Appropriates funding to the University of Minnesota for pollinator research and outreach including, but not limited to, the identification and establishment of pollinator’s habitats.
  • New York (SB 2044- 2019): Makes available information on minimum guidelines for vegetation management plans that are pollinator friendly.
  • North Carolina (SB 606- 2019): Prioritizes the use of native plants on highway rights-of-way.
  • Ohio (HB 26 – 2017): Directs contributions from transportation and public safety to the Beekeeper’s Association for the protection and preservation of Ohio’s monarch butterfly and pollinator corridor.
  • Vermont (HB 205- 2019): Regulates the sale and application of neonicotinoid pesticides in order to protect pollinators, and requires the secretary of agriculture, food and markets to register neonicotinoids as restricted use pesticides.
  • Washington (HB 2478 – 2016): Requires all agencies to give preference, when appropriate, to replacing pollen-rich or nectar-rich noxious weeds with native forage plants that are beneficial for all pollinators, including honey bees.
  • Washington (SB 5552- 2019): Provides for the development and maintenance of habitat beneficial for the feeding, nesting, and reproduction of pollinators.

Beekeeping

Beekeeper with hive.Honey bees are managed and used to pollinate over 100 crops grown commercially in the United States. While many hobbyist beekeepers manage bee colonies, commercial beekeepers provide the majority of pollination services to the agriculture sector. At least 10 states—California, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, New Jersey, Oregon, Virginia and Washington—have enacted legislation in recent years to support beekeepers (also called apiarists) and the beekeeping industry.

Examples of enacted legislation:
  • California (AB 450- 2019): Makes changes to provisions on relocating apiaries, imposing a 72-hour deadline to provide notice of relocation of an apiary within a county.
  • Delaware (HB 195- 2019): Updates the state’s beekeeping code and specifies that individuals keeping bees in the state have to annually register their colonies before Jan. 30 of each year.
  • Hawaii (SB 482 – 2013): Exempts home-based agricultural producers of honey from processing honey in certified houses and obtaining a permit from the Department of Health. The law is intended to encourage small beekeeping operations by minimizing administrative requirements that make it more difficult to operate.
  • Idaho (SB 1266 – 2014): Exempts honey producers who bring their hives into the state for indoor winter storage purposes from paying certain fees and taxes.
  • Iowa (HB 2371 – 2018): Exempts the state and municipalities from liability for claims involving honey bees on public property.
  • Montana (HB 443- 2019): Revises requirements for hobbyist apiaries, specifically regarding site registration fees.
  • Oregon (HB 2653 – 2015): Requires Oregon State University Extension Service, in consultation with state Department of Agriculture and beekeeping organizations, to establish best practices for beekeeping within residential areas.
  • Virginia (HB 1331 – 2008): Directs the commissioner of agriculture and consumer services to develop and administer a beekeeper assistance program designed to help Virginia beekeepers maintain healthy, productive colonies.
  • Washington (SB 6057 – 2015): Extends tax exemptions provided to agricultural products and farmers to apiarists and honey bee products.
  • Washington (HB 1133- 2019): Limits liability for civil damages for registered apiarists.

Public Awareness

At least 10 states—Georgia, Kentucky, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia—have enacted legislation to increase public awareness of the importance of pollinators. Official state designations, specialty license plates and education programs all contribute to this goal.

Examples of enacted legislation:
  • Georgia (HB 671 – 2018): Uses funds from the sales of special license plate decals to garner public awareness about the importance of conserving the honey bee and for other associated programs such as beekeeping research facilities.
  • New Mexico (SB 234- 2019): Creates a license plate for pollinator protection.
  • Ohio (HB 59- 2019): Designates the month of April as “Ohio Native Plant Month.”
  • Oregon (HB 3362 – 2015): Establishes the pollinator health outreach and education plan to inform the public about the best practices for avoiding adverse effects from pesticides on populations of bees and other pollinating insects. 
  • Pennsylvania (HR 904 – 2014): Designates June 16 through June 23, 2014 as pollinator week.
  • Pennsylvania (HR 385- 2019): Designates the week of June 17 through June 23, 2019 as pollinator week.
  • Texas (HR 65 – 2015): Designates the western honey bee as the official state pollinator.
  • Virginia (HB 1331 – 2008): Establishes the Plant Pollination Advisory Board and tasks members with encouraging research, education and promotion of beekeeping and pollination.
  • Virginia (HJR 95- 2019): Designates the last full week of June as Pollinator Awareness Week.
  • West Virginia (HB 2846- 2019): Designates a beekeeper pollinator license plate.
Other

The following legislation represents additional state strategies to address pollinator health.

Examples of enacted legislation:
  • Minnesota (HB 3172 – 2014): Designates the Minnesota Zoological Garden as the official state pollinator bank, creating a program to avert the extinction of pollinator species by cultivating insurance breeding populations.
  • New York (SB 5492 – 2017)Implements a fiscal plan that includes efforts to support pollinator diversity, pollinator habits, prevent and recover pollinator losses, and outreach education. 

Federal Agency Action

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

In recent years, EPA has taken various actions concerning pollinator health, including public education, state assistance, and the regulation of pesticides.

EPA provides assistance to and coordinates with state and tribal agencies as they develop and implement their local pollinator protection plans, commonly known as Managed Pollinator Protection Plans. These plans allow states and tribes the flexibility to determine how to best respond to pollinator issues in their regions.

In 2017, EPA issued the Policy Mitigating Acute Risk to Bees from Pesticide Products to safeguard certain bees from agricultural pesticide sprays and dust applications, and recommended that states and tribes develop pollinator protection plans.

The policy also implemented tactics such as reevaluating the effects of neonicotinoids on pollinator populations, prohibiting the use of neonicotinoid pesticides when bees are present, temporarily halting new neonicotinoid pesticide approval until assessments are complete, and other pesticide and research-oriented initiatives.

In 2019, EPA began registering new uses for the insecticide sulfoxaflor, citing data that when used according to the label, sulfoxaflor poses lower risk to pollinators than registered alternatives. According to EPA, sulfoxaflor is an effective tool for growers with a lower environmental impact than widely-used alternatives such as neonicotinoids.

EPA also proposed interim decisions for neonicotinoids, which are widely used on a variety of indoor and outdoor surfaces. The agency proposed restricting when the pesticides can be applied to blooming crops in order to limit exposure to bees, requiring additional personal protective equipment to limit potential occupational risks, and management measures to keep the pesticides on the intended target and reduce the amount used on crops associated with ecological risks. The proposed decisions would also require language on labels advising homeowners not to use neonicotinoid products.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Honeybee flying towards a yellow flower.The USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) provides data on honey bee colonies and honey production. In 2016, the program was expanded to track information about colony production and health. In 2019, NASS suspended data collection for the annual Honey Bee Colonies report. Prior to its suspension, the report allowed USDA, beekeepers, and other interested groups to compare quarterly losses and additions and to analyze the data on a state-by-state basis.

Additional Resources