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National Pollinator Week: Is America doing enough for its bees?

Some concerned bee advocates are converging on Washington, D.C., this week, as part of a plea for the government to do more to support declining bee populations. The bee die-in falls in the middle of #NationalPollinatorWeek.

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Emily Wilkins addresses a crowd of demonstrators during a stop of the Keep the Hives Alive Tour outside of Bayer CropScience in Durham, N.C., on Monday. Speakers emphasized the negative impacts of pesticide use on bee populations.

Kaitlin McKeown/The Herald-Sun/AP

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The first day of summer kicked off National Pollinator Week, which runs June 20 to 26. A proclamation from the Office of the Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) calls for this week to celebrate bees, birds, bats, butterflies, and other pollinators.

But the week isn't just a celebration. Activists are taking the opportunity to stage a protest to demand more action to protect the pollinators.

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Advocates plan to bring 2.64 million dead bees to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday as part of a rally calling for immediate action by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the USDA, and Congress to protect the bees from toxic pesticides, according to a press release from the environmental group Friends of the Earth.

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"The millions of dead bees that have accompanied us during the Keep the Hives Alive Tour are carrying a message – this is just a tiny fraction of the devastation beekeepers are dealing with year after year. It’s well past time for policymakers to wake up and take action to curb the use of the toxic pesticides that are harming pollinators, people and our environment," Larissa Walker, Center for Food Safety pollinator program director, said in a press release.

Much of the activists' ire is directed at pesticide regulation, or lack thereof. 

The EPA released the results of its first scientific risk assessment about a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids and their effect on bees. Recent scientific studies have suggested that the pesticides, which work on insects' central nervous systems, cause problems for honeybees. The EPA found that whether or not the tested pesticides harmed the bees depended on the crop they were sucking nectar out of. Some posed serious risks while other were not harmful.

President Obama ordered the EPA to assess the effect of pesticides, particularly noting neonicotinoids, on pollinators in a presidential memorandum on the health of honeybees and other pollinators issued in June 2014.

The EPA has proposed restrictions to limit bee exposure to acutely toxic pesticides and has required clearer labels on some neonicotinoid pesticide products specifically prohibiting use during certain times when bees are present, like when they are foraging, according to the agency's website.

From April 2015 to April 2016, beekeepers lost 44 percent of their honeybee colonies, according to an annual nationwide survey conducted by the Bee Informed Partnership, a collaboration of US universities and research labs supported by the USDA. And that marks the second consecutive 12-month period that honeybee populations have dropped by over 40 percent.

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About one third of the food eaten in the US either directly or indirectly benefits from honeybee pollination, according to the USDA. And that means at least $15 billion of value is added to agriculture nationwide each year, thanks to the busy bees.

"This week and every week we should be doing everything we can to protect bees and other pollinators that are critical to our health and the health of our food system and environment," Ms. Walker said.