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Saving the Bees vs. Pork Barrel Spending

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The Obama administration has finally released its "National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators." It's the federal government's answer to all the hype found in the news related to the health of the nation's honeybee hives. While it's not clear what it will achieve for the bees, we can be sure it comes with lots of pork-barrel spending, government handouts, and shortsighted pesticide polices that undermine food production.

I have documented why much of the hype on this issue is misinformed and why solutions will only come from private collaboration between various parties — primarily beekeepers and farmers. The federal government is the last entity that will be able to "save" the honeybee.

Nonetheless, the report outlines several goals for its program, some of which border on the ridiculous. For example one key goal is: "Reduce honey bee colony losses during winter (overwintering mortality) to no more than 15% within 10 years."

Seriously? Federal officials are going to determine how many beehives should survive each year and what survival rate is sufficient? This is dumb and only sets the stage for news hype every year losses exceed this government set arbitrary number. In fact, many surveys of beekeepers have indicated that a much higher rate is acceptable, closer to 20 percent a year. Moreover, survival rates will ebb and flow based on myriad factors over which government, and even beekeepers, have no control, such as weather and the emergence of new and old diseases.

The federal government has also decided how many butterflies we should have. Among its goals is to increase the Monarch butterfly population to 225 million butterflies that live on 15 acres in Mexico over the winter, and they will achieve that through "international collaboration." In addition, the feds promise to improve 7 million acres of land to make it more pollinator-friendly.

The report lists out a host of action items to achieve these goals, including spending more than $80 million on education and habitat development for pollinators. Education will mean more government posters and Smithsonian programs, all paid for with your tax dollars. Some of it may contain good information, some probably will amount to no more than anti-pesticide propaganda, and much of it may include just the right amount of alarmism to ensure bigger and bigger allocations of your tax dollars to address this "crisis."

In addition, part of the funds may go to government gardening, such as the much touted "White House Pollinator Garden," and funding for "People's Gardens" around the nation that include only politically correct "native" plants. Never mind that honeybees are not native to the United States; perhaps all these native flowers will also help bees and butterflies. While it's great for first-family photo-ops, it's not clear why this is a linchpin in federal pollinator strategy.

That said, I can't say I am upset that the government will plant pollinator-friendly flowers on current government lands. But why can't they shift funds from existing landscape budgets to do that? Perhaps they need so much money because they'd also like to expand government land holdings. Specifically, the report says: "FWS will acquire more than 46,000 acres of land in the Midwest and Mountain Prairie Regions, which, although primarily aimed at protecting priority bird habitats, will have secondary benefits for monarchs and other pollinators." This surely isn't good, given the fact that the government already owns an estimated one-third of the nation if not more and federal land management is poor.

There will be lots of pork-barrel in this spending strategy as well. For example, the strategy includes providing "emergency" financial assistance to beekeepers who experience hive losses that are "in excess of normal mortality" over the winter because of "Colony Collapse Disorder or other natural causes." Now that the strategy defines normal hive losses as 15 percent, there may be a whole lot of beekeepers who qualify for these government handouts. Since "emergency" spending always seems to go beyond existing budgets, these handouts may increase the program's cost beyond the $80 million. And ironically, this spending may well reward the beekeepers who do the worst job managing their hives, since funds will to flow to beekeepers with the highest losses.

But the biggest defect with this strategy is that it directs EPA to hold off on registering new uses of a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, and EPA may also use bees as an excuse to limit existing uses. There is no good evidence that these products have any impact on honeybees in real-life settings, and there is considerable evidence that neonicotinoids have both agricultural and environmental benefits. Since these chemicals are applied to seeds and don't require spraying, neonicotinoids are among the least environmentally damaging pesticides on the market.

And if farmers are forced, they will resort to potentially more damaging pesticides, unless EPA regulates those products out of existence as well. If federal policy limits pesticide use enough to undermine agricultural productivity, farmers will need to plant more land to produce food, leaving less land available for pollinators and other species. This anti-technology approach is a no-win for humans or wildlife.

Finally, there is something that the strategy could have done that it completely neglects to consider: reforming federal policies that undermine wildlife habitat. In particular, federal ethanol subsidies and mandates encourage over-planting of corn, which has little value to pollinators and means there is less land for other crops and for wildlife.

Cleaning up the federal government's act should have been priority No. 1, but of course, that's not as much fun as spending $80 million on everything from a White House Pollinator Garden to fancy Smithsonian events and programs to government handouts for beekeepers who are the ones who should be ultimately responsible for their own hives.