Feds announce plan to help feed honeybees amid die-offs

Plan aims to aid farmers who depend on pollination, as bee numbers plummet due to pesticides and habitat loss

USDA inspectors examine a vial of honey in Atwater, Calif. Beekeepers nationwide are battling a stark decline in honeybee populations and production.
Gary Kazanjian/AP Photo

The U.S. Department of Agriculture was set to announce Tuesday a multimillion-dollar program to feed rapidly dwindling honeybee populations in the Midwest, where farmers and ranchers depend on the insects to pollinate their crops and pastures.

Commercial honeybees pollinate an estimated $15 billion worth of produce each year. Many beekeepers take hives to the upper Midwest in the summer for bees to gather nectar and pollen for food, then truck them in the spring to California and other states to pollinate everything from almonds to apples to avocados.

But agricultural productions has been threatened by a more than decadelong decline in commercial honeybees and their wild cousins because of habitat loss and pesticide use.

A phenomenon called colony collapse disorder, in which honeybees suddenly disappear or die, has made the problem worse, raising losses over the winter to as much as 30 percent per year.

The USDA hopes to stem those losses by providing more areas for bees to build up food stores and strength for winter. The new program, details of which were provided to The Associated Press ahead of the announcement, will be "a real shot in the arm" for improving bees' habitat and food supplies, said Jason Weller, chief of the USDA's National Resources Conservation Service.

Dairy farmers and ranchers in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas can qualify for about $3 million to reseed pastures with alfalfa, clover and other plants that are useful to both bees and livestock. Farmers also can get help building fences, installing water tanks and making other changes that better enable them to move their animals from pasture to pasture so the vegetation doesn't become worn down. The goal is to provide higher-quality food for insects and animals.

"It's a win for the livestock guys, and it's a win for the managed honeybee population," Weller said. "And it's a win then for orchardists and other specialty crop producers across the nation because then you're going to have a healthier, more robust bee population that then goes out and helps pollinate important crops."

The USDA is focusing on those five states because 65 percent of the nation's estimated 30,000 commercial beekeepers take hives there for at least part of the year. With limited funds, Weller said, the goal is to get the biggest payoff for the investment.

Corn, soybean and other farmers can qualify for money to plant cover crops, which typically go in after the regular harvest and help improve soil health, or to grow bee-friendly forage in borders and on the edges of fields.

The program is just the latest in a series of USDA efforts to reduce honeybee deaths. The agency has partnered with universities to study bee diseases, nutrition and other factors threatening colonies. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently created a working group on bees to coordinate efforts across the department.

The work is already paying off with changes to once common beekeeping practices, like as supplementing bees' diets with high-fructose corn syrup, said David Epstein, a senior entomologist with the USDA. He noted that the quality of bees' food is as important as the quantity.

"You can think of it in terms of yourself," Epstein said. "If you are studying for exams in college and you're not eating properly and you're existing on coffee, then you make yourself more susceptible to disease, and you get sick."

Tim Tucker, who has 400 to 500 hives at sites in Kansas and Texas, said he may take some of his bees to South Dakota this year because the fields around his farm near Niotaze, Kan., no longer provide much food for them.

Tucker, who is the president of the American Beekeeping Federation, said the last "really good" year he had was 1999, when he got more than 100 pounds of honey per hive. Last year he averaged about 42 pounds per hive.

He hopes dairy farmers, beef cattle ranchers and others will sign up for the new USDA program by the March 21 deadline.

Tucker said that the new program is not a cure-all but that "anything we do to help provide habitat for honeybees and for native bees and pollinators is a step."

The Associated Press

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