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The Nation

March 30, 2011

Proposal to tax Calif. beekeepers stirs up swarm

FRESNO, Calif. — A California proposal to tax beekeepers to pay for research on bees' health has stirred up a swarm, even though all agree more study is needed amid a widespread die-off.

The proposal to set up a California Apiary Research Commission with the power to tax comes as bees nationwide are perishing in great numbers from colony collapse disorder and other health problems. California is the nation's main producer of fruits and vegetables, and bees are essential pollinators of about a third of the United States' food supply.

But many beekeepers say they will vote against forming the commission in a summer referendum because they don't want to be forced to pay fees when their industry continues to suffer big losses. The proposal would allow the commission to tax beekeepers doing business in California with more than 50 colonies at a rate of up to $1 per hive.

"It's a tough economy and there are a lot of beekeepers who are in trouble because they're losing their bees," said David Mendes, president of the American Beekeeping Federation. "This isn't the best time in the world to ask people to give more money."

Yet nearly everyone involved in agriculture agrees more research on bees is needed.

Colony collapse disorder, in which all the adult honey bees in a colony suddenly disappear, continues to decimate hives in the U.S. and overseas. Since it was recognized in 2006, the disease has destroyed colonies at a rate of about 30 percent per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Before that, losses were about 15 percent per year from a variety of pests and diseases.

Researchers haven't been able to determine what causes colony collapse or find a way to prevent it. The work so far points to a combination of factors including pesticide contamination, a lack of blooms — and hence nutrition — and mites, viruses and parasites, said Marla Spivak, a University of Minnesota entomologist. Researchers like Spivak are trying to breed bees with natural defenses against diseases and parasites, while beekeepers are providing supplementary protein to keep bees from getting ill.

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