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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Agriculture 1. 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.
Open
Between 2017 and December 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began implementing this recommendation by funding a project to develop a national native bee monitoring plan. Specifically, in 2017, USDA held a stakeholder listening session to obtain public input on the monitoring program, led a symposium to discuss the input, and gathered additional recommendations from symposium participants based on monitoring programs for other declining species of concern, such as birds, bats, and butterflies. In 2018, USDA sponsored a 4-day scientific workshop to discuss a national native bee health monitoring program. in 2019, USDA and university scientists wrote a paper, which they plan to publish in a peer-reviewed journal, with scientific recommendations on a national native bee monitoring strategy, based on scientific expert opinion gathered from (1) university and government experts on bees, (2) statisticians, (3) modelers and ecologists, and (4) conservation biologists. According to a USDA official, a National Native Bee Monitoring Research Coordination Network is being formed to address GAO's recommendation to develop a national monitoring plan for wild, native bees, with the project funded as of June 2020. Some USDA officials told us that without a team to coordinate a monitoring plan, individual agency efforts may be ineffective in providing the needed information in trends on wild, native bees in the United States. In December 2020, USDA officials said they would lead an effort with other key federal agencies to develop a federal native bee monitoring plan and begin to hold meetings by spring 2021.
Department of Agriculture 2. 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.
Closed - Implemented
In November 2018, USDA's National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) informed GAO that in September 2018, NIFA had completed steps to implement the recommendation. GAO's February 2016 report stated that the three categories for bees and other pollinators used in the Current Research Information System (CRIS) to code USDA-funded research projects were "honey bees," "bees, honey and other pollinators," and "other pollinators." GAO also reported that research projects that could help fill the identified knowledge gaps in the White House Pollinator Health Task Force's research action plan could not be easily identified using those categories in CRIS. However, the agency has now updated CRIS to reflect the categories of bees identified in the research plan. The new bee categories are "honey bees" and "other bees (non-Apis bees)." Additionally, non-bee research categories are now separate from bee research; those categories are "other non-bee pollinators," and "honey, honey products and apiary products."
Department of Agriculture 3. 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.
Closed - Not Implemented
As of March 2020, USDA had not acted on this recommendation .
Environmental Protection Agency 4. 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.
Closed - Not Implemented
In September 2018, EPA said that its plan for obtaining data on the effects of pesticides on nonhoney bees is to adhere to the existing process that it follows for other taxonomic groups. More specifically, in its response to GAO, EPA emphasized that it routinely uses surrogate species to evaluate risks from pesticides and that it has used honey bees as a surrogate for nonhoney bee species. EPA acknowledged that, ideally, risk evaluations would be made using as many species as would likely be exposed. However, EPA stated that doing so would be impractical on a routine basis. EPA also maintained that existing data indicate that honey bees continue to represent a reasonable surrogate for nonhoney bee species. Additionally, EPA said that when acceptable data on nonhoney bees are available, the agency uses the information to characterize the relative sensitivity of honey bees and nonhoney bees and to determine whether additional data are needed on nonhoney bees to inform risk management decisions and ensure that the use of a pesticide does not represent an unreasonable risk to the environment. Finally, EPA said that if data support that honey bees are not serving as suitable surrogates for nonhoney bees for a particular compound, then the agency would consider whether the risk management decision warrants calling in additional data. In April and September 2018, EPA said that it has continued to work toward the development of suitable protocols for assessing exposure and effects of pesticide on nonhoney bees. We note that those efforts may contribute to EPA's ability to obtain data from pesticide registrants on the effects of pesticides on nonhoney bee species when necessary. GAO acknowledges that EPA may require registrants to provide data on the effects of pesticides on nonhoney bee species on a case-by-case basis. However, EPA has not met the intent of our recommendation that it develop a plan to routinely obtain such data from pesticide registrants. There were no changes to the status of this recommendation as of December 13, 2019.
Environmental Protection Agency 5. 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.
Closed - Not Implemented
EPA has taken steps to partially implement this recommendation. In September 2018, EPA officials said that in response to our recommendation, the agency had conducted a pilot study to evaluate pesticide tank mixes used on almonds in California during bloom. EPA selected almonds because almond growers contract for the services of roughly 67 percent of the nation's managed honey bee colonies and because almonds are grown primarily in California where growers are required to report pesticide use under state law. As part of the pilot study, EPA worked in collaboration with the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and the California Almond Board, and used data contained in the California Pesticide Use Report. EPA said that although it was able to identify pesticide tank mixes applied during almond bloom, the number and variability in those combinations led the agency to conclude that is it not feasible to do so at a national level given the number of factors that influence such combinations even within a relatively localized area. EPA said it was unaware of similar data on tank mixes for states other than California. With respect to evaluating the potential for some combinations of pesticide active ingredients to result in synergistic effects, EPA said that it has been taking a closer look at pesticides for which registrants are making patent assertions of synergistic effects. EPA believes data supporting these patents likely represent the most compelling evidence of synergistic effects. When warranted based on these patent assertions and the supporting evidence, EPA may require additional data or incorporate the patent evidence into its risk assessments on a case-by-case basis. While we appreciate EPA's efforts to gather data on tank mixtures in California almond orchards, and note EPA's statement that the agency does not believe a national analysis of mixtures is feasible, we cannot conclude that the agency has fully implemented the recommendation. There were no changes in the status of this recommendation as of December 13, 2019.
Department of Agriculture 6. 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.
Closed - Not Implemented
As of March 2020, USDA had not acted on this recommendation because it would require developing estimates that may not be accurate, according to USDA officials.
Environmental Protection Agency 7. 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.

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