They’re small and operate behind the scenes, but they’re critical to agriculture — and Congress is starting to notice.
Honeybees are responsible for pollinating everything from apple orchards to vegetable patches, contributing as much as $30 billion a year to U.S. agriculture. About a third of U.S. crop production relies on bees for pollination.
But these workhorses of agriculture are dying at unsustainable rates, triggering concerns in farming circles and beyond. Bees are considered an indicator species, and their decline signals broader systemic problems, environmental scientists say.
Over the past five years, roughly a third of commercial bee colonies in the United States have died each winter, according to Department of Agriculture surveys.
And while the most recent survey offered some good news — with only about 23 percent of bee colonies dying over the winter — critics say that number is questionable, because just more than 20 percent of beekeepers responded.
These over-winter die-offs have been exacerbated by, or may be related to, the puzzling syndrome known as Colony Collapse Disorder, in which bees leave their hives and never return. The disorder first captured lawmakers’ attention in 2007, prompting three subcommittee hearings in 2007 and 2008. Since then, congressional interest in the topic has waned — until recently.
A bill (HR 2692) to temporarily ban certain pesticides linked to bee deaths appears to be gaining some momentum with lawmakers, now bearing 65 co-sponsors.
In addition, the farm bill (PL 113-79) signed into law in February contains language directing the Agriculture Department to find strategies addressing bee declines, and orders the department to work with the Environmental Protection Agency to publish “guidance on enhancing pollinator health.”
In April, a House Agriculture subcommittee held a hearing on pollinators.
“The issue of pollinator protection is one that has significantly grown in its momentum on the Hill,” said Larissa Walker, policy and campaign director for the Center for Food Safety, “especially in the last year.”
The White House is also getting involved. In April, it convened a meeting on the issue, with about 60 attendees from academia to the chemical industry. Bee experts say they expect a new White House pollinator initiative to be released this month, timed to coincide with National Pollinator Week, which begins June 16.
The renewed attention on bees can be traced back to a headline-making event last June, when roughly 25,000 bees dropped dead in an Oregon parking lot. State officials attributed the mass die-off to a pesticide called Safari, which was sprayed on nearby linden trees.
The state temporarily banned Safari’s main ingredient, dinotefuran, which belongs to a pesticide class called neonicotinoids, or neonics.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.