Unsettling Bee Colony Collapse Linked to Ethanol Mandates

June 9, 2015

America’s bee colonies are dying off at an alarming rate. This trend is so alarming that politicians in Washington are paying attention. Last month, the Obama Administration released a national strategy to “promote the health of honey bees.” The problem is, this strategy doesn’t acknowledge that the colony collapse epidemic is tied to rapidly disappearing prairies and grasslands spurred by federal policy: ethanol mandates written into law by the Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS. Despite the evidence, the administration refuses to admit this policy is part of the bee problem.

The RFS mandates increasing amounts of biofuels be blended into the U.S. fuel supply. That incentivizes farmers to overplant corn, which is used to produce more than 80 percent of all fuel ethanol in the U.S.—at the expense of native prairies, grasslands and other key bee habitats.

More than 6,000 beekeepers recently reported losing an average of 42 percent of their colonies in the last 12 months—an 8 percent increase over the reported loss in the previous 12 months—according to a preliminary report from the Bee Informed Partnership, a consortium of research laboratories, universities and federal agencies.

Research indicates the problem is two-pronged: land conversion (native grasslands and prairies plowed into farmland) and increased pesticide use. Both can be traced back to federally-imposed ethanol mandates.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Bee colony keepers in America’s heartland reported the worst losses. Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin reported colony losses of 61.4 percent, 62.4 percent and 60.2 percent respectively. Not coincidentally, these states are at the epicenter of government-mandated ethanol boom, which has significantly increased corn production and subsequent pesticide use. In Iowa, the leading corn producer in the U.S., an estimated 38 percent of the state’s total land mass was allocated for corn planting during the 2014 farming season. To meet the ever-growing federal mandates for corn ethanol fuel, land not fit for agriculture has been converted to farmland, necessitating the corn seed in Iowa and elsewhere be increasingly treated with pesticides that have been linked to significant bee colony collapse.

The effect this collapse could have on the global food supply is troubling considering pollinators, such as bees, are responsible for 35 percent of the world's food production. Bees pollinate a significant portion of our nation’s crops, but the once biodiverse acreage in our heartland—varied croplands, native prairies and conservation lands—have been whittled down to a single cash crop: corn, which has limited nutritional value for pollinators like bees. Since the RFS went into effect in 2005, Corn Belt states alone have lost 2.8 million acres from the conservation reserve program—prime bee habitat.

As another twisted unintended consequence, the Ethanol Lobby (made up of Agriculture Bigwigs and ethanol refiners), in order to promote cash crops, is threatening small farmers’ livelihoods who rely on bees to pollinate the diverse array of crops they grow. Small farmers are now forced to shell out big bucks to truck in bee pollination services to pollinate their crops. Increased production costs can trickle down to the consumer and cost you more at the grocery store.

The connection between federal ethanol mandates and bee losses is clear, and only Congress has the power and will to change it—especially since the Obama Administration isn’t willing to side with the science. Tell your member of Congress to protect the honeybees that are so vital to our agriculture, our food supply and our economy by reforming the RFS.