WASHINGTON — Lawmakers are rallying behind the beleaguered honeybee by creating a congressional caucus to promote research and focus attention on the troubling collapse of bee colonies.
The caucus comes as farmers, scientists and industry officials scramble for answers to the mystery behind the significant colony loss over the past four years. In some cases, beekeepers have lost 40 percent or more of their colonies, potentially endangering the pollination of many fruits, nuts and vegetables.
"We don't really even know what we have now so that we can assess whether it's in trouble," said Laurie Davies Adams, the executive director of the nonprofit Pollinator Partnership. "That takes real investment. ... That's what we want with the caucus."
The new Pollinator Protection Caucus currently claims 11 members, including Reps. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., and Henry Brown, R-S.C. The members of the caucus represent the states that have been the most acutely afflicted by colony loss.
Cardoza chairs the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture, which has held two hearings on the bee problems.
The new caucus is similar to dozens of other congressional caucuses that cover topics from wine and shellfish to minor league baseball and multiple sclerosis. Caucus members stay in touch, show their concern and co-sponsor legislation.
One major focus for the pollinator caucus will be the next farm bill, to be completed in 2012.
The last farm bill, completed in 2008, authorized $10 million annually until 2012 for pollinator research. Adams noted that it marked the first time the farm bill had used specific language recognizing pollinators in both research and conservation provisions.
Only $2.5 million to $3 million, however, was eventually appropriated, Adams said. The original amount authorized in the 2008 farm bill, if fully allocated, would be sufficient for new research projects, she said.
Current research, including a four-year winter loss survey by Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist at Pennsylvania State University, and others indicates that honeybee colonies have diminished at the startling average rate of 33 percent each year since 2006.
"It's the tip of the iceberg," Adams said. "We need to have some baseline data that will help us understand our populations as climate change happens, as habitat shifts."
Additional research will be paramount to understanding the various factors that influence colony loss, vanEngelsdorp said. The first year of his survey found that colony collapse disorder, in which worker bees disappear from a hive, was the primary cause of honeybee colony loss in the U.S. During the past three years, however, colony collapse disorder has diminished.
"Bees are being confronted with a whole bunch of different things that are killing them," vanEngelsdorp said in an interview. "The solution has to be a lot of different factors as well."
The Haagen-Dazs ice cream company, a sponsor of Pollinator Partnership, lured activists and members of Congress to a briefing earlier this week with vanilla swiss almond and raspberry sorbet treats. Since 2008, the company has donated $620,000 to Penn State and the University of California-Davis for research, as more than 40 percent of its flavors use ingredients pollinated by bees.
Though Adams acknowledged that the caucus will have modest goals at the outset, it's her hope that lawmakers will move beyond the honeybee, learn about the other 4,000 species of bees that populate the U.S. and take action on behalf of the country's pollinators.
"You should be afraid when you don't see a bee," she said. "We're hoping to inculcate all legislation with this consciousness."
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