To the horror of beekeepers around the country, it appears that the decline in honeybee populations is worsening. The first-ever study to map U.S. wild bees suggests they are disappearing in the country’s most important farmlands – from California’s Central Valley to the Midwest’s corn belt and the Mississippi River valley.
Pollinators in general are under huge amounts of stress, struggling to survive as habitats are destroyed, systemic pesticides are applied to crops, and climate change throws off once-reliable weather patterns. Now, a new bill hopes to give these essential insects and animals a boost.
Introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the bill increases funding and improves cooperation among federal agencies supporting polinator health. The bill also sets a goal for the USDA and other agencies of conserving, restoring, or enhancing 3 million acres of forage habitat — i.e. fields of flowering plants and shrubs — a step towards the goal of 7 million acres of pollinator habitat set by the White House in 2014. It would also create more financial incentives for farmers to plant bee-friendly plants — including wildflowers, sunflowers, buckwheat, and native grasses — and using natural predators, instead of pesticides, to ward off pests.
Pollinators play an essential part in getting food on the plates of Americans — and people around the world. Roughly 75 percent of global food crops depend on pollination, and $235–$577 billion worth of these crops are affected by pollinators every year. Some crops depend on highly specialized pollinators, and would cease to exist without them: The chocolate midge, for instance, is the only insect that can pollinate the cacao plant.
In the United States, much of the pollination of commercial crops is done by honeybees, which are trucked around the country to pollinate crops such as cauliflower, broccoli, raspberries, and almonds. But honeybees have suffered devestating losses over the last several years: U.S. beekeepers lost 44 percent of their honeybee colonies between April 2015 and April 2016, losses that are far above the roughly 20% average in recent years that beekeepers said was environmentally and economically viable. Scientists blame multiple stressors for these huge new losses including pesticides (notably neonicotinoids), the varroa mite, and the lack of healthy foraging ground.
Photographer Clay Bolt, who specializes in bee and other insect photography, has created A Ghost in the Making, a 19 minute-long film about his quest to find, photograph, and ultimately protect the rare rusty-patched bumblebee.