Why This U.S. Senator Wants You To Care About Bees

September is National Honey Month, and we’re celebrating with a host of sweet stories — from whether honey really works as an antibiotic (it does!) to the merits of honey-based shampoo. But, we’re also highlighting a more serious issue: protecting our bees, without which we’d have no honey — or apples or almonds or any of the other crops that rely on bee pollination to survive. We asked U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota, to tell us more about the issue. She’s a leading advocate of protecting our bees — and the Senate's most skilled honey-pun maker.
As fans nationwide, myself included, are salivating — excuse me — celebrating National Honey Month this September, we are reminded and encouraged to pay homage to our favorite pollinator, the honeybee. And, I’m particularly excited about honeybees, as my home state of North Dakota happens to be the country’s number-one honey producer.
Honeybees are much more than the adorable face of your favorite breakfast cereal or Jerry Seinfeld’s favorite Pixar hero. And, they’re creating a much bigger buzz in the U.S. economy than you might think.
According to the White House, “Honey bee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural products each year in the United States.” And, with North Dakota as the top producer of their nectar-of-the-month — producing what the National Honey Board says was more than 33 million pounds of honey just last year — our state bees have been, well, busy. And, they aren’t just working for North Dakotans.
North Dakota is also the nation’s top commercial pollinator state. According to the American Honey Producers Association, that means the same North Dakota honeybees that produce about a quarter of America’s honey supply also pollinate the nation’s largest commercial specialty crops — think of your favorite produce at Whole Foods — by sending an army of honeybees to the East and West Coasts annually to pollinate American staples like almonds, apples, and blueberries. In fact, 60% of the nation’s honeybee colonies are needed to pollinate California’s annual almond crop, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, and industry estimates are as high as 80%.
BEESSen. Heitkamp in the grey beekeeping suit.
Without North Dakota honeybees, we wouldn’t get almonds — or any of the other 90 vegetables, fruits, and nuts that make up a third or more of the American diet, say AHPA and the American Beekeeping Federation. As the local food movement has expanded and continues to grow, it’s honeybees that are making it possible for farmers to grow the fruits and vegetables that so many of us eat.
But, our honeybees are in significant danger — and your go-to products at your local grocer or farmers markets could feel the sting. For decades, the honeybee population in the United States has been on the decline. According to the USDA’s ARS, the number of managed U.S. honeybee colonies dropped from five million in the 1940s to just 2.5 million today. And, since 2006, beekeepers even reported startlingly high hive losses, from 30% all the way up to 90%.
Scientists are still studying the problem, but the USDA’s ARS says they have so far attributed these losses to what is known as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, which happens when a queen bee is in the hive, but there are low numbers of or no adult honeybees. A swarm of issues can contribute to CCD, including poor bee nutrition, parasites, pathogens, loss of forage lands, and a lack of genetic diversity and pesticide exposure. In the 1980s, declines in honeybee colony health got a lot worse with the arrival of new pathogens and pests, and the arrival of new mites with viruses in the 1990s didn’t help either.
That’s why I wrote an amendment in the Farm Bill, which Congress passed earlier this year, to direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture to work toward protecting and enhancing our honeybee and pollinator habitats as a part of the conservation programs that producers voluntarily enter into. Basically, the amendment language gives the USDA the kick it needs to make sure conservation programs are both achieving environmental goals as well as giving managed honeybees the high-quality habitat they need — one that includes common alfalfa and types of sweet clover.
And, I’m not the only one getting busy to help save our honeybees. The Obama Administration announced a federal strategy this June to establish a new pollinator health task force to increase the health and habitat of pollinators.
I’ll keep fighting to protect our bees, and with a colony of help, a little national buzz, and a big sweet tooth, the results can be as sweet as honey.

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