(New throughout, adds response from environmental groups, other details of plan)
By Ros Krasny
WASHINGTON, June 20 The White House on Friday announced a federal strategy to reverse a rapid decline in the number of honey bees and other pollinators in the United States that poses a threat to billions of dollars in crops.
In recent years, bees have died at a rate the U.S. government says is economically unsustainable. Honey bees pollinate plants that produce about a quarter of the food consumed by Americans, including apples, lemons, broccoli, avocados and carrots.
Crops such as almonds, California's second most valuable agriculture commodity, are almost exclusively pollinated by honey bees.
"Honey bee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year in the United States," the White House said in a statement.
The contribution of native wild pollinators such as bumble bees were valued at $9 billion in 2009.
In May, an annual report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the "Bee Informed Partnership," an industry group, estimated total losses of managed honey bee colonies at 23 percent over the winter of 2013-14, the latest in a series of annual declines.
Numbers of monarch butterflies, another pollinator, have slumped as well.
"The problem is serious, and poses a significant challenge that needs to be addressed to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems," the White House said.
The recent loss of honey bee colonies is thought to be caused by factors including a loss of natural forage and inadequate diets, mite infestations and diseases, loss of genetic diversity, and exposure to certain pesticides.
Bees have also been subject to a condition called colony collapse disorder (CCD) in which there is a rapid, unexpected and catastrophic loss of bees in a hive.
President Barack Obama directed federal agencies to use research, land management, education and public/private partnerships to advance honey bee and other pollinator health and habitats.
But the environmental group Friends of the Earth said the beekeeper in chief should have taken action against neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides chemically similar to nicotine that has been linked to bee deaths.
"The administration should prevent the release and use of these toxic pesticides until determined safe," said Friends of the Earth president Erich Pica.
The upscale grocery chain Whole Foods Markets in 2013 launched a campaign to support protection of bees. It distributed photographs of the denuded store shelves possible if bees were to disappear.
Under Obama's plan the Environmental Protection Agency and USDA will lead a multi-agency task force to develop a pollinator health strategy and action plan within six months.
As part of the plan, the USDA announced $8 million in funding for farmers and ranchers in five states who establish new habitats for honey bee populations.
The North American Pollinator Protection Campaign has declared June 16-22 "pollinator week" in the United States.
Obama's move, the group said, "is the result of a nearly 20-year campaign to increase awareness and all action for pollinators." (Additional reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing by Richard Chang and David Gregorio)