The US Department of Agriculture has suspended data collection for its annual Honey Bee Colonies report, citing cost cuts – a move that robs researchers and the honeybee industry of a critical tool for understanding honeybee population declines, and comes as the USDA is curtailing other research programs.
It’s also another step toward undoing President Barack Obama’s government-wide focus on protecting pollinators, including bees and butterflies, whose populations have plummeted in recent years.
The annual survey, which started in 2015, gathers data on the number of honeybees per state by quarter, including those being lost with symptoms of colony collapse disorder, an issue that’s made honeybees a darling of environmentalists and climate activists.
It is at least the third bee-related dataset to be suspended under the current administration.
“The decision to suspend data collection was not made lightly, but was necessary given available fiscal and program resources,” according to a notice posted by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Survey. The USDA would not provide a figure for how much the agency was saving by discontinuing the survey.
The suspension is “temporary,” according to a USDA spokesperson, who did not say when or if it would be resumed. This year’s report, scheduled to be released in August, will only include part-year data.
Outside groups that have been critical of the administration see the move as another way to undermine federal research.
“This is yet another example of the Trump administration systematically undermining federal research on food safety, farm productivity, and the public interest writ large,” said Rebecca Boehm, an economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The USDA recently announced plans to relocate key research units from Washington, DC, to Kansas City over the objections of employee unions, who say the changes are triggering an exodus of experts from the agency. The move covers bee industry researchers. The union that represents one of the research units says employees must decide by July 15 whether to relocate.
Tracking honeybee loss
The USDA survey is one of two national surveys that tracks honeybee loss and the only one overseen by the federal government. The other survey, run by the Bee Informed Partnership, has been tracking data for longer and relies on grant funding, including from the USDA, to support its work. The USDA survey is considered to be a more statistically accurate survey, since it has access to the list of all registered bee keepers in the US, but it has only been gathering data since 2015.
Researchers at the USDA’s Economic Research Service described the dataset as valuable and important for beekeepers and other stakeholders like the honey industry and farmers whose crops rely on honeybees to pollinate them.
“We’re concerned about whether honeybee colony losses are still high and whether we’re making any progress in bringing them down,” said Peyton Ferrier, an economist at USDA who conducts research on how honeybee health affects the agriculture industry.
Bees help pollinate a third of the crops we eat, including almonds, apples, avocados and grapes, but bee populations have been steadily declining since 2006. That’s caused alarm not just in the US but in Europe as well. Pollinators like bees are under threat because of parasites like varroa mites, widespread pesticide use, habitat loss and the climate crisis.
In 2014, the Obama administration launched a program to address honeybee population losses, directing federal agencies to work toward preserving bee and other pollinator populations.
The Trump administration has gone the other way, though Second Lady Karen Pence has advocated for doing more to help honeybees and even keeps a beehive in the vice president’s residence.
Last year, the Trump administration reversed an Obama-era rule barring the use of neonicotinoids, a chemical family that is one of the major culprits in colony collapse disorder, in wildlife refuges. And the Environmental Protection Agency has granted “emergency” permissions to 18 states to spray an insecticide that’s considered “highly toxic” to bees.
Two other surveys have been suspended or scaled back in the last year. The Cost of Pollination survey, which tracked how farmers pay for honeybees to pollinate their crops, was suspended in 2018, and the Honey survey – which gathers information on honey production – has been scaled back to cut data collection on beekeeping operations that have less than five colonies.
Understanding what’s going on with honeybees
Mace Vaughan, co-director of the Pollinator Conservation Program at Xerces Society, told CNN he is “definitely disappointed” that the federal government isn’t making a long-term commitment to understanding what is happening with bee colonies.
“We need some sort of thermometer to be able to determine, at a big scale, are we actually helping to turn around hive loses, to turn around pollinator declines,” Vaughan said. “Understanding what’s going on with honeybees is incredibly important to having a sense of what’s impacting pollinators in general.”
He added that the loss of the USDA survey means there is “no redundancy” in the system.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist who studies bee health at the University of Maryland, explained the important role honeybees play in agriculture, adding that it’s important to have a “finger on the pulse” to better understand the trends in bee health.
“The value of all these surveys is its continuous use over time so you can compare trend lines,” he said.
The most recently available data shows that beehive loss reached its highest winter levels this past year, according to the Bee Informed Partnership’s most recent report.
Kelvin Adee, president of the American Honey Producers Association, said he’s hopeful that the pause in data collection is temporary and that he understands USDA’s budget constraints. But he said he hopes the USDA returns to collecting this data in the future.
“We definitely hope that they pick it back up again and have that information available. If it’s not, then that’s going to become a concern to us,” he said. “Where are we going to get that data that can be depended on?”