By Samuel Fromartz
The Senate Agriculture Committee held another in its series of hearings on the farm bill Tuesday, with the focus on specialty crops. But it was a beekeeper from Waxahachie, Texas, that caught my ear.
Mark Brady, who has raised bees for 30 years, told the panel about the recent and sharp decline in bee populations - so-called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) - and mentioned some chilling figures:
- that a third of all food crops rely on bees for pollination;
- that California almonds - 80 percent of the global crop - require more than 1 million bee hives for pollination.
- that the American honey bee population has dropped 30 percent over the past two decades;
- that domestically produced honey accounts for only 31 percent of all sales, a figure that has been steadily declining.
The question, of course, is why have the bees been disappearing?
Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, asked whether cells phones might be a cause.
"On the cell phone issue, we took all the phones away from the bees," Brady quipped. But he quickly turned serious and mentioned concerns about "cumulative low-dose pesticides" that sit on pollen and nectar and which bees bring back to their hives. He noted that the EPA has studied pesticides that kill bees immediately, but it hasn't looked at low-dose toxicity.
"One of the things we're looking really hard at is the cumulative effect of pesticides," said Brady, who was representing the American Honey Producers Association. As bees work during the summer, they pick up pollen and nectar and store it in the hive. When the weather turns colder, the bees consume what's in the hive. "That's one of our big concerns - that there may be pesticides in that pollen," Brady said. "We're beginning to wonder now if that's causing a delayed effect on some of these colonies dying."
The New York Times had a report on the issue Tuesday, delving into a number of potential causal factors, including pesticides.
Among other theories, Brady also mentioned "stress" as a cause, since bee colonies are transported across the nation to pollinate crops in California; the introduction of foreign bees for the first time in 85 years (to make up for population declines); or a combination of factors leading to a tipping point.
Brady made clear that there is no definitive answer to the question, which is why he was appealing to the panel to increase USDA funding on bee research by $1 million. It seems a small price to pay when the pollination of apples, avocados, oranges, melons, broccoli, tangerines, cranberries, strawberries, alfalfa, soybeans, sunflower, cotton - in all, some 90 food and fiber crops - are at stake.