Honeybees, Butterflies to Get Help from New Federal Plan

May 19, 2015 10:04 AM EDT

It's no secret that in recent years, US honeybee and butterfly populations have been in serious decline. Though it wouldn't be the first time, now the federal government is stepping in, announcing its plan to boost numbers of these helpful pollinators.

Scientists say bees - crucial to pollinate many crops - have been suffering due to a combination of factors that include diet, mites, disease, and pesticides, as well as climate change. So in a bid to save these buzzing insects as well as the US economy - which makes more than $15 billion off of the bee industry - the government is asking everyone, from bureaucrats to everyday citizens, to help save bees.

In addition, the plan calls for making more bee-friendly federal lands, spending more money on research, and considering the use of less pesticides - especially neonicotinoids, or "neonics," which are commonly used to coat the seeds of commercially sold plants and cash crops and lead to the deadly disease called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

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Specifically, in the next five years, about seven million acres of bee habitat are to be restored, including plants that are more varied and better for bees in terms of their diet, as scientists are concerned that vast swaths of land growing only one crop are hurting bee nutrition.

This plan doesn't just apply to the Department of Interior, which already controls many acres of federal land, according to The Associated Press (AP), but also to other lesser-thought-of agencies such as Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation.

"Here, we can do a lot for bees, and other pollinators," University of Maryland entomology professor Dennis vanEnglesdorp told the AP. "This I think is something to get excited and hopeful about. There is really only one hope for bees and it's to make sure they spend a good part of the year in safe healthy environments. The apparent scarcity of these areas is what's worrying. This could change that."

After all, honeybee and butterfly populations have suffered enough already. One new study found that beekeepers lost more than 40 percent of their colonies last year. But the focus isn't just on our black-and-yellow friends. Monarch butterflies across the United States are also seeing drastic declines in their numbers. For instance, the number of monarchs that spend the winter in Mexico's forests is down by 90 percent or more over the past two decades, prompting talks of even making these butterflies an endangered species.  (Scroll to read on...)

For now, the US government is working with Mexico to expand monarch habitat in the southern part of that country. Not to mention the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), National Wildlife Federation, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) recently announced their plan to spend $3.2 million on habitat restoration for the species.

Meanwhile, to better understand the main drivers of bee decline, the US administration proposes spending $82.5 million on honeybee research in the upcoming budget year, up $34 million from now.

With pesticides likely playing a major role, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will turn its focus on neonics, which have been temporarily banned in Europe.

Lessening "the effects of pesticides on bees is a priority for the federal government, as both bee pollination and insect control are essential to the success of agriculture," said a new EPA report.

This ambitious pollinator plan may be a last ditch effort to save bees and monarch butterflies across the country, but scientists are hopeful that it will help the imperiled species.

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