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 December 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had taken relevant and positive actions but had not yet fully implemented GAO's February 2016 recommendation for monitoring wild, native bees. According to a senior USDA official, a Native Bee Monitoring Steering Committee composed of representatives from four USDA agencies is developing a response to GAO's recommendation. According to the official, the steering committee has taken or plans to take the following activities regarding a monitoring plan. (1) The committee held a stakeholder listening session on June 28, 2017, to obtain public opinion regarding (a) why a native bee monitoring program is important, (b) the type of information and data needed to adequately conduct monitoring, and (c) how the public would like to see the monitoring data used. Highlights of the input received at the listening session and the goals of the national monitoring plan were discussed in a symposium held November 7, 2017, at the National Entomological Society of America Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado. USDA gathered additional recommendations from symposium participants based on monitoring programs for other declining species of concern, such as birds, bats, and butterflies. (2) The committee plans to develop a report or prospectus that will delineate activities being conducted by relevant federal agencies with responsibilities for surveying species of concern, including plans to coordinate activities and outline individual roles and responsibilities towards facilitating a national monitoring plan. According to the senior official, the steering committee is working with officials in USDA to ask other federal agencies associated with the Pollinator Task Force to summarize their current and future activities in support of monitoring native bee populations. The anticipated completion date for the report is March 30, 2018. (3) The committee plans to hold a "Scientists' Summit" on April 24-25, 2018, at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The purpose will be to identify (a) feasible approaches for conducting a national monitoring effort, (b) what minimum data collection standards are needed for monitoring native bees effectively, and (c) possible mechanisms for making data publicly accessible. Workshop participants will include university and governmental experts on bees, statisticians, modelers and ecologists, and conservation biologists assessing other species in decline. Workshop discussion leaders will produce a whitepaper, which will include scientific recommendations on a national native bee monitoring strategy in the United States and will identify what USDA can do to better coordinate currently funded projects and will identify research gaps and funding needs. The expected completion date is September 30, 2018. These are positive steps and we support these efforts. Finalizing these actions will help USDA ensure that it and other federal agencies have effectively developed a mechanism for monitoring wild, native bee populations.

    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 October 2017, the agency informed GAO that it planned to complete the recommendation during early fiscal year 2018.

    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: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: As of April 2018, the agency had taken actions relevant to the recommendation but had not fully developed a plan to obtain data from pesticide registrants on the effect of pesticides on nonhoney bee species. In an April 2018 letter to GAO, EPA described the efforts of the agency and others to determine whether honey bees are a suitable surrogate for assessing the risks that pesticides pose to a variety of bee species. In its letter, EPA stated its belief that the body of evidence supports the agency's approach of continuing to use honey bees as a surrogate for nonhoney bees. According to the agency, available data do not support modifying data requirements for pollinators to include routine testing of nonhoney bees. In particular, EPA stated that the use of honey bees in tests to assess the risks posed by pesticide does not appear to routinely under- or overestimate the potential hazards to other bee species. EPA reported to GAO that it will continue to consider available nonhoney bee data on a case-by-case basis for individual pesticide risk assessments. In light of EPA's statements, GAO has concluded that EPA does not currently agree that there is a need to fully implement 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: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In an April 2018 letter to GAO, EPA wrote that it is not possible to fully implement the recommendation. EPA stated that it had identified common tank mixes used during almond pollination in California using a state database. However, EPA said that obtaining similar data from other states is not possible because other states do not require pesticide use reporting. Therefore, according to EPA, it is not feasible for the agency to anticipate the universe of specific pesticide combinations nor to require testing of these combinations to use in pesticide risk assessments. According to EPA, doing so would be extremely costly and lead to years of delay in the pesticide registration program. EPA also stated that the uncertainty associated with interpreting information about pesticide combinations, even if available, would prohibit meaningful use of the data in risk assessments and in decision making. In light of EPA's April 2018 letter, we conclude that the agency does not currently plan to implement the recommendation.

    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 December 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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