Beekeepers May Get No Relief

Washington, DC – Honeybees that help pollinate Tennessee's apples, pumpkins and squash are disappearing. Struggling beekeepers who have lost their hives are looking for relief in the Farm bill.

Beekeeper Kevin Jester lives about fifty miles north of Memphis in West Ridge, Arkansas. He typically raises about two thousand colonies of bees. In 2006, he lost nearly all of them. He bought more bees, but then lost them too. Needless to say business hasn't been good.

Jester said, We've had virtually no income from the bees for two years now and you know we've had to start working odd jobs. We have been buying and selling equipment a bit. We've sold basically everything that wasn't tied down.

The strange bee-killing mystery that has hurt Jester could soon hit more hives. Already, some Tennessee beekeepers are feeling its effects. Scientists are studying a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder. It became known in the United States in 2006. Jester has given up raising more bees until scientists figure out the problem.

Jester said, You know we went to a joint national meeting in January expecting to learn something and you know the researchers still don't know what is causing it.

The lack of bees is big concern for fruit and vegetable growers who rely on them for pollination. Emily Zass runs an orchard in Maryland. She sells her apples and pears at this Farmer's market in Washington DC. She says when she started farming ten years ago, nature provided plenty of bees. Now she says she has to pay to rent them.

Zass said, It used to cost something like I think 25 dollars a hive and the beekeeper would bring them in a truck put them where we want in the orchard and then over time bees cost over 40 dollars a hive and even now I think we have trouble finding bees to rent.

The honeybee die-off has forced growers to rely on other insects like wasps and ladybugs to pollinate their crops. Zass says bees are more efficient and do a better job.

Zass said, I guess just because nature made them perfect, but there are less honeybees than before.

Congress has set aside tens of millions of dollars each year in the Farm bill to research the colony collapse disorder. But beekeepers who have lost their hives want some relief so they can stay in business. Tennessee Democrat Lincoln Davis says Congress may consider helping beekeepers down the road if the problem gets worse. Davis said, There's never been any money that is my understanding in the Ag bill that will actually be used for emergency or disaster funding in case this happened. It is something that we ought to look at, we haven't.

Given that the Farm bill has traditionally paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to Tennessee's wheat and cotton growers. David Mendes of the American Beekeepers Federation says it is unlikely beekeepers will get attention.

Mendes said, Beekeeping is a very very small industry. We don't have a lot of political clout. There is some discussion in the Farm bill. There is some numbers there. But until it is appropriated then it is probably not solid.

Lawmakers are still making changes to the Farm bill. It does include a disaster aid program but it excludes beekeepers. So it could be a while before beekeepers get some relief if they get it all.