Bee Health:

USDA and EPA Should Take Additional Actions to Address Threats to Bee Populations

GAO-16-220: Published: Feb 10, 2016. Publicly Released: Mar 11, 2016.

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What GAO Found

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conducts monitoring, research and outreach, and conservation that help protect bees, but limitations in those efforts hamper the department's ability to protect bee health. For example, USDA has increased monitoring of honey bee colonies managed by beekeepers to better estimate losses nationwide but does not have a mechanism in place to coordinate the monitoring of wild, native bees that the White House Pollinator Health Task Force's May 2015 strategy directs USDA and other federal agencies to conduct. Wild, native bees, which also pollinate crops, are not managed by beekeepers and are not as well studied. USDA officials said they had not coordinated with other agencies to develop a plan for monitoring wild, native bees because they were focused on other priorities. Previous GAO work has identified key practices that can enhance collaboration among agencies, such as clearly defining roles and responsibilities. By developing a mechanism, such as a monitoring plan for wild, native bees that establishes agencies' roles and responsibilities, there is better assurance that federal efforts to monitor bee populations will be coordinated and effective. Senior USDA officials agreed that increased collaboration would improve federal monitoring efforts.

USDA also conducts and funds research and outreach on the health of different categories of bee species, including honey bees and, to a lesser extent, other managed bees and wild, native bees. Consistent with the task force strategy and the 2008 Farm Bill, USDA has increased its conservation efforts on private lands to restore and enhance habitat for bees but has conducted limited evaluations of the effectiveness of those efforts. For example, a USDA-contracted 2014 evaluation found that agency staff needed additional expertise on how to implement effective habitat conservation practices, but USDA has not defined those needs through additional evaluation. By evaluating gaps in expertise, USDA could better ensure the effectiveness of its efforts to restore and enhance bee habitat plantings across the nation. USDA officials said that increased evaluation would be helpful in identifying where gaps in expertise occur.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken steps to protect honey bees and other bees from risks posed by pesticides, including revising the label requirements for certain pesticides, encouraging beekeepers and others to report bee deaths potentially associated with pesticides, and urging state and tribal governments to voluntarily develop plans to work with farmers and beekeepers to protect bees. EPA also issued guidance in 2014 that expanded the agency's approach to assessing the risk that new and existing pesticides pose to bees. The task force strategy also calls for EPA to develop tools to assess the risks posed by mixtures of pesticide products. EPA officials agreed that such mixtures may pose risks to bees but said that EPA does not have data on commonly used mixtures and does not know how it would identify them. According to stakeholders GAO interviewed, sources for data on commonly used or recommended mixtures are available and could be collected from farmers, pesticide manufacturers, and others. By identifying the pesticide mixtures that farmers most commonly use on crops, EPA would have greater assurance that it could assess those mixtures to determine whether they pose greater risks than the sum of the risks posed by individual pesticides.

Why GAO Did This Study

Honey bees and other managed and wild, native bees provide valuable pollination services to agriculture worth billions of dollars to farmers. Government and university researchers have documented declines in some populations of bee species, with an average of about 29 percent of honey bee colonies dying each winter since 2006. A June 2014 presidential memorandum on pollinators established the White House Pollinator Health Task Force, comprising more than a dozen federal agencies, including USDA and EPA.

GAO was asked to review efforts to protect bee health. This report examines (1) selected USDA agencies' bee-related monitoring, research and outreach, as well as conservation efforts, and (2) EPA's efforts to protect bees through its regulation of pesticides. GAO reviewed the White House Task Force's national strategy and research action plan, analyzed data on USDA research funding for fiscal years 2008 through 2015, reviewed EPA's guidance for assessing pesticides' risks to bees, and interviewed agency officials and stakeholders from various groups including beekeepers and pesticide manufacturing companies.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends, among other things, that USDA coordinate with other agencies to develop a plan to monitor wild, native bees, and evaluate gaps in staff expertise in conservation practices, and that EPA identify the most common mixtures of pesticides used on crops. USDA and EPA generally agreed with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Steve D. Morris at (202) 512-3841 or morriss@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: As of August 2017, USDA had taken relevant and positive actions but had not yet fully implemented the recommendation related to monitoring wild, native bees. In June 2017, USDA held a stakeholder listening session to gather input to prepare for the development of a monitoring plan. Prior to that, in February 2017, USDA chaired a meeting with representatives from USDA and Interior to discuss how to proceed in replying to the native bee monitoring recommendation. According to a senior USDA official, the meeting participants agreed to form a team to address the recommendation. The participants also planned future relevant activities. These included plans to (1) hold a stakeholder listening session in June 2017 to determine what will be needed to conduct a robust native bee survey, including the identification of any non-Federal entities that might be able to contribute to a native bee monitoring initiative; (2) develop a prospectus in August 2017 that will be shared with all the agencies represented on the Pollinator Health Task Force to ensure minimal duplication of effort and to capitalize on any other activities; (3) hold a December 2017 workshop of stakeholders and scientists to write a white paper on how to combine Federal resources to address the need for a native bee survey; (4) develop the white paper in February 2018 with information on the status of monitoring efforts, current and future needs for effective and comprehensive monitoring, and the status of monitoring partnerships between Federal agencies, State agencies, and nongovernmental organizations; (5) continue bi-weekly conference calls with task teams to address what can be done with current resources; and (6)complete a gaps analysis in May 2018 to determine how to allocate additional resources.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of federal efforts to monitor wild, native bee populations, the Secretary of Agriculture, as a co-chair of the White House Pollinator Health Task Force, should coordinate with other Task Force agencies that have monitoring responsibilities to develop a mechanism, such as a federal monitoring plan, that would (1) establish roles and responsibilities of lead and support agencies, (2) establish shared outcomes and goals, and (3) obtain input from relevant stakeholders, such as states.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2017, the agency informed GAO that it planned to complete the recommendation by October 2017.

    Recommendation: To increase the accessibility and availability of information about USDA-funded research and outreach on bees, the Secretary of Agriculture should update the categories of bees in the Current Research Information System to reflect the categories of bees identified in the White House Pollinator Health Task Force's research action plan.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: As of August 2017, the agency had not acted on our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To better ensure the effectiveness of USDA's bee habitat conservation efforts, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrators of FSA and NRCS to, within available resources, increase evaluation of the effectiveness of their efforts to restore and enhance bee habitat plantings across the nation, including identifying gaps in expertise and technical assistance funding available to field offices.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: As of May 2017, the agency had taken actions relevant to the recommendation but had not fully developed a plan to obtain data from pesticide registrants on the effects of pesticides on non-honey bee species. According to EPA, until suitable test methods have been developed, the agency has continued to rely on honey bees as a surrogate for the broader range of bee species that include both solitary and social non-honey bees. The agency continues to track the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD's) efforts to develop suitable test methods to evaluate the effects of pesticides on non-honey bees. EPA provided comments to the OECD on the acute oral and acute contact toxicity test guidelines developed for bumble bees, which are social non-honey bee managed bees; these test methods were recently finalized by OECD as formal test guidelines. Also, EPA staff serve as members of the International Commission on Plant-Pollinator Relationship (ICP-PR), for which a non-honey bee workgroup has been developing acute and chronic toxicity test methods for other managed non-honey bees, including the solitary mason bee. EPA researchers in the National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory (within the Office of Research and Development) are developing methods for measuring effects of pesticides on bumble bee colonies through the use of micro-colonies, and will be participating in field studies over the next two years to determine the effectiveness of these methods in evaluating impacts to bumble bees from the use of pesticides used in horticulture. According to the agency, once sufficient data are available, EPA will be in a better position to determine the extent to which honey bees serve as reasonable surrogates for estimating the sensitivity of non-honey bees to pesticides. According to agency officials, EPA included the recent OECD acute contact and acute oral toxicity tests with bumble bees with the suite of laboratory and semi-field studies in a rulemaking effort that would codify these tests as formal data requirements for registrants. EPA had planned to solicit public comment on the proposed bumble bee testing requirements; however, the rulemaking effort has been delayed until the regulatory burden of the rule can be more thoroughly evaluated. According to agency officials, in January 2017, EPA hosted an international workshop on non-honey bees to evaluate the extent to which the primary routes of exposure for honey bees (i.e., contact and ingestion of residues in pollen/nectar) are protective and serve as suitable surrogates for evaluating exposure of non-honey bees to pesticides. Workshop participants discussed data needed to evaluate exposure for solitary and social non-honey bees. The proceedings of this workshop will be published in a peer-reviewed journal, and will inform EPA's understanding of whether additional routes of exposure need to be considered as part of EPA's risk assessment framework for pollinators. While these are positive developments, they do not constitute full implementation of the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that EPA is reducing the risk of unreasonable harm to important pollinators, the Administrator of EPA should direct the Office of Pesticide Programs to develop a plan for obtaining data from pesticide registrants on the effects of pesticides on nonhoney bee species, including other managed or wild, native bees.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: As of May 2017, EPA had taken actions relevant to this recommendation but had not fully implemented it. According to EPA, during February and March 2017, the Office of Pesticide Programs continued its efforts to monitor residues in honey bee colonies providing pollination services in almond orchards. In April 2017, EPA requested that the California Department of Pesticide Regulation provide Pesticide Use Reporting data, including specific formulation and quantities applied to specific sites on specific dates during almond bloom. EPA has also reached out to the Almond Board, as well as to beekeepers and almond growers, to request information on the most common tank mixes applied during almond bloom. Although EPA has previously requested Pesticide Use Reporting data from California and the state has provided preliminary data, the information was not sufficiently detailed to extract actual formulations applied on specific dates to specific areas within the almond growing region of California. The combination of information requested from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and the Almond Board is expected to provide data to evaluate and identify commonly used pesticide tank mixes applied during almond pollination as a case study. According to EPA officials, data from California indicate that the use of tank mixtures in almond orchards decreased by roughly 60 percent from 2014 through 2016, suggesting that best management practices recommended by the Almond Board may be having a positive effect on almond grower practices with respect to tank mixtures. While these are positive developments, they do not yet fully implement the recommendation. It is not yet clear that EPA has used information on the identity of the most common tank mixtures to determine whether they pose greater risks than the sum of the risks posed by the individual pesticides. In addition, it is not yet clear that EPA has identified tank mixtures commonly used on crops other than almonds.

    Recommendation: To help comply with the directive in the White House Pollinator Health Task Force's strategy, the Administrator of EPA should direct the Office of Pesticide Programs to identify the pesticide tank mixtures that farmers and pesticide applicators most commonly use on agricultural crops to help determine whether those mixtures pose greater risks than the sum of the risks posed by the individual pesticides.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: As of March 2017, USDA had not acted on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To measure their contribution to the White House Pollinator Health Task Force strategy's goal to restore and enhance 7 million acres of pollinator habitat, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrators of the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to develop an improved method, within available resources, to track conservation program acres that contribute to the goal.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has completed its implementation of this recommendation. EPA has made available on a website its schedule for re-evaluating existing pesticides under Registration Review and informed GAO that it will update the schedule on an annual basis. According to EPA, on May 2, 2016, the agency updated the schedule of its registration review cases. The updated schedule was shared with the public and stakeholders via the EPA Pesticide Program Update, a Web based listserve program. The updated schedule is available at: www.epa.gov/pesticide-reevaluation/registration-review-schedules. The agency noted that new scientific information can come to light at any time and change its understanding of potential risks from pesticides. The review of new data could potentially prolong the risk assessment and decision-making process and change its schedule. This schedule is subject to change based on shifting priorities and is intended to be a rough timeline. The schedule will be updated regularly to reflect any timeline changes and to include anticipated deliverables for later dates.

    Recommendation: To provide Congress and the public with accurate information about the schedules for completing the registration reviews for existing pesticides required under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, the Administrator of EPA should disclose in its Pesticide Registration Improvement Act implementation reports, or through another method of its choosing, which registration reviews have potentially inaccurate schedules and when it expects those reviews to be completed.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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