US government policies to increase renewable fuel production ended up killing the country’s bees

Every year, beehives are sent across the country to keep America’s crops pollinated.
Every year, beehives are sent across the country to keep America’s crops pollinated.
Image: Reuters/Adrees Latif
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America’s honeybees are dying off, and one reason why could be widespread federal policies meant to help the environment—that have backfired.

Bees are the primary pollinators for US crops. Melons, oranges, broccoli, almonds—you name it, and it probably requires bees. But farmers rarely have their own bee colonies on their property, and fewer still can rely on nearby wild bees to pollinate their crops. So they rent them—and nearly half of all commercial bees come from North and South Dakota.

These states are perfect for bees. The weather is just right, and there’s enough floral diversity to help colonies gain strength after a busy spring and summer spent pollinating. After they’re trucked across the country during the winter and spring, beekeepers bring their apiaries back to the states’ flower- and clover-filled fields. The bees spend a few months gorging on a cornucopia of flowers (which is good for their health after months of eating only one type of pollen while pollinating a specific crop) and grow their hive.

Beekeepers come to North Dakota in droves, many of their journeys ending in a drive along the dusty roads of the state’s farms, looking for a break in the cornfields. If they find a good spot, they work out an agreement with the landholder to pay to place their boxes of hives there. But available land has gotten scarcer and scarcer for beekeepers over the past decade, and that’s led to weaker and weaker bees.

Between April 2015 and April 2016, US beekeepers lost 44% of their colonies, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Apiary Inspectors of America. There are several reasons bees have been dying off in general: pesticide use in and around farms, bee-killing varroa mites that have been in the US since the 1980s but whose impacts on bee colonies are only starting to be understood, higher temperatures from climate change, and now, habitat loss. The irony, says Clint Otto, a US Geological Survey researcher, is that habitat loss is the result of the nation’s push for environmentally friendly renewable fuels.

While the federal government has provided farmers various forms of corn and soy subsidies since the 1930s, the most valuable one came in 2004 in the form of a major tax credit. The Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit gave farmers who grew crops that could be converted into ethanol—like corn and soybeans—a $0.45-per-gallon credit. The idea was to propel the US’s renewables market forward—and also to reduce the nation’s dependency on overseas oil during the Iraq War. A 2007 federal bill required the country to amp up its renewable fuels supply from 4 billion gallons in 2006 to 36 billion gallons by 2022; that, in turn, created an urgent need for corn and soy.

This encouraged farmers across the Midwest to use more land for those valuable crops. Unfortunately for the bees, many farmers in North and South Dakota chose to plant corn and soy—corn especially—on land they had previously set aside in the popular US Department of Agriculture Conservation Reserve Program—which paid farmers to not plant crops in certain parcels to conserve wild space.

Year after year, more farmers jumped on the corn bandwagon and pumped up the nation’s ethanol supply—decreasing the number of open, undeveloped fields that beekeepers used to rest their bee colonies in the summer months, according to a study led by Otto published earlier this year.

Less Conservation Reserve Program land means bees now have to compete for foraging land during the summer and fall, which are supposed to be restful months for them. “I think we went from 39 million acres in the U.S. about 10 years ago to 26 million acres [now],” Otto says.

The habitat loss has driven up prices for bee rentals: from about $53 a hive in 2004 to about $150 by 2010, according to a California State Beekeeping Association survey. California bee broker Joe Traynor, who facilitates colony rental agreements between beekeepers and farmers, says the price is now about $200 a hive, which has hurt almond farmers the most. Since almonds are the first crops to bloom in late February and early March, almond farmers have to pay the most to rent pollinators, Traynor says. Farmers who grow melons, citrus and other crops that bloom later can haggle more over price.

But at the same time, none of this has led to more profits for beekeepers. “It’s made it harder for beekeepers to come up with strong colonies,” Traynor says.

The Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit was discontinued in 2012, but several other corn and soy subsidies still exist. About 39% of the country’s corn production still went toward ethanol in fiscal year 2015-16, according to data from the USDA’s Economic Research Service. And as long as corn prices remain high, it’s unlikely that farmers to choose to set land aside for the Conservation Reserve Program.

“If you can pull off 100 bushels of corn on an acre of your land and corn was getting $8 a bushel,” says Otto, “are you going to go into a conservation program or are you going to go for the big bucks?” Subsidies for conserving land aren’t very lucrative: the average conservation program rental rate was $63.65 per acre as of 2014, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service, a government-run research arm of Congress—just a fraction of the $800 an acre of corn can bring in.

And it doesn’t help that $9 million of the conservation program’s budget was cut two years ago as part of the 2014 US Farm Bill, says Mace Vaughan, pollinator program co-director for the Xerces Society, a wildlife advocacy organization.

But corn prices are dropping, so some farmers are starting to revert cornfields back into the conservation program, Traynor says. This year, corn prices dropped 6%, hitting  a record low this November, according to commodity trading price website Trading Economics.

“[Conservation Reserve Program land] is coming back now that the corn price is dropping,” Traynor says, “but still not near what it was a few years ago.”