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White House Task Force To Save Bees Stirs Hornet's Nest

A bumble bee gathers pollen in September 2007 on a sunflower at Quail Run Farm in Grants Pass, Ore., where farmer Tony Davis depends on them to pollinate crops. Bees are being wiped out by a mysterious condition known as colony collapse disorder.
Jeff Barnard

When President Obama announced last week that he was creating a federal task force to investigate the nation's vanishing bee colonies, the moment provided newly minted Press Secretary Josh Earnest an opportunity to crack one of his first jokes on the job.

"When I walked out here today, I knew I was going to be handling a range of sensitive issues," he told reporters. "I didn't know I was going to be talking about the birds and the bees."

But now that the initial buzz is dying down, it's looking like the White House has, well, disturbed a political hornet's nest.

At the center of the controversy is the bee initiative's language asking the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the role of neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides that researchers have implicated in the disintegration of bee colonies.

That's been a sticking point in the past for bee-related legislation.

A host of interest groups with powerful D.C. lobbying arms — including farm organizations, seed producers and pesticide companies such as Monsanto, Bayer CropScience and Syngenta — are fearful of a ban akin to the two-year moratorium now in place in the European Union. In the U.S., neonicotinoids currently shield over 90 percent of the corn crop from pests.

Those companies have recently engaged in an active bee-oriented public relations effort — Monsanto hosted a "Honey Bee Health Summit" in St. Louis last summer, while Bayer has opened "Bee Care Centers," first in Germany as the EU considered its ban, and then in North Carolina last April.

And Politico reported Monday that Bayer had taken on its second lobbying team to defend its pesticides against claims of bee devastation: Gephardt Group Government Affairs, headed by former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo.

Critics of the president's new task force argue that those agribusiness interests will continue to put pressure on the EPA, which hasn't yet been convinced by research attempting to isolate neonicotinoids as a cause of bee deaths.

Colony collapse disorder, the phenomenon that causes bees to spontaneously flee their colony and die a lonely death, has largely vexed apiary researchers.

A study out of Harvard's School of Public Health in May found an association between neonicotinoid exposure and the disorder, but researchers acknowledge they have yet to uncover the biological mechanisms at work.

A 2013 bill, called the "Saving America's Pollinators Act" and sponsored by Reps. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., would have directed the EPA to suspend neonicotinoid licensing while additional research was conducted.

Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth and a backer of that bill, expressed disappointment in the White House's latest effort. "President Obama's announcement on protecting pollinators does not go far enough," he said in a statement. "The administration should prevent the release and use of these toxic pesticides until determined safe."

But just last week, three members of Congress from California, a state where the bee die-off has spelled massive troubles for the almond industry, signed on as co-sponsors of the stalled 2013 proposal. Bayer and a number of farming groups have stepped up to lobby against it, according to transparency website OpenSecrets.org.

There are considerable economic considerations on either side of the issue: The White House's pollinator fact sheet puts the value of bees to the agriculture industry at $24 billion.

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Gregory Barber
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
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