Field Notes from White House: Listening to an Unprecedented Alliance of Stakeholders for Bee and Monarch Butterfly Recovery

Herb/Veggie/Pollinator Garden taken on WH tour 4/27/14
Herb/Veggie/Pollinator Garden taken on WH tour 4/27/14

It was a dark and stormy day in Washington DC when sixty thought leaders from the farm community, industry, government and non-profits met next to the White House grounds to discuss pollinators; we could hardly see First Lady Michelle Obama’s new pollinator garden through all the pouring rain. Nevertheless, it was cause for celebration: a landmark meeting in the history of insect conservation, because the White House had brought together diverse stakeholders to deal with recent catastrophic declines in pollinators and plan their recovery on a continent-wide scale.

Dr. Michael Stebbins PhD, the meeting facilitator for White House Office of Science Policy, set the stage:

“There are many different stressors impacting various pollinators: herbicides, pesticides, habitat loss, climate change, and parasites like the varroa mite. Because of that, we need a hands-on approach to better leverage everyone’s investments to reverse the loss of pollinators. We are not at all interested in pointing fingers but we do want to know what roles chemical producers, among many others, are willing to play in helping solve this problem.”

The President’s Science Policy Advisor, Dr. John Holdren, added his welcome to the group of farmers, beekeepers, nurserymen, scientists, educators, corporate CEOs and faith-based community leaders Wednesday at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington DC:

“This is an issue that President Obama personally cares about: ways of protecting and nourishing natural capital, including ecosystem services. We are happy to see this intersection between people inside government and outside government trying to figure out how we can meet the challenges we face. Bees and butterflies have become like the canaries in the coal mine and that should be a wake up call for all of us.”

For nearly two hours, the group discussed the best means to avert further pollinator decline and prevent negative consequences for food security in North America. As noted by Ed Flanagan, a Maine wild blueberry farmer and president and chief executive of Jasper Wyman & Son

“As a farmer of berries, without pollinators, we are out of business. So we have begun taking a sort of Hippocratic Oath as farmers just as doctors do: “First, do no harm.”

In particular, Dr. Stebbins asked every person in the room to identify the following assets:

1) Activities, policies, or other initiatives for which federal agencies could enact to address pollinator health;
2) Potential public-private partnerships to be formed to address these issues; and
3) Significant commitments that organizations are making which the White House could help raise up to increase attention to these issues.

It became a hundred twenty minute session that this issue has emerged to be one of the most pressing and pervasive issues affecting our food supply and the health of the natural systems and ecological relationships that provide support services for agriculture.

Dr. Marla Spivak, a MacArthur Genius award-winning bee scientist at the University of Minnesota bluntly summed up many participants’ concerns: “Americans need good, clean diverse food, and so do pollinators.” As concluded by Laurie Davies Adams, Executive Director of the Pollinator Partnership:

“We need to come away from this meeting with a larger collective vision that incorporates the good work of hundreds of organizations and businesses.”

And so commitments began to be made for the voluntary involvement of farmers, beekeepers, nurserymen, seedsmen, garden clubs, wildlife habitat restorationists to design a pollinator recovery plan to include both the for-profit and non-profit sector at an unprecedented scale. These commitments will need to affect more than 100 million acres of American farmscapes that have been depleted of their pollinators over the last decade. While the causes and consequences of the pollinator declines remain different for each species of insect that has become imperiled, there was a ready consensus: habitat restoration of milkweeds for monarchs and other butterflies will also aid honeybees and imperiled bumblebees.

Christi Heinz of Project Apis put the entire concern into perspective: “Pollinator health is really a land use issue. Bees in particular are responsible for much of the food we eat. It should be a requirement to set space aside for them.”

To which Dave Nosman of Pheasants Forever added, “What farm or ranch couldn’t need better quality wildlife habitat?”

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