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USDA provides $3 million fund to help feed hungry honeybees

Help is on the way for American honeybees, according to an announcement Tuesday, Feb. 26, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Farmers and ranchers in five Midwest states will be eligible to receive up to $3 million in funding allocated to encourage planting of crops which will help feed the honeybees. The crops will be good for the land, and for pastured animals that feed on that land. Clover and alfalfa can nourish the bees and the animals, help farmers to naturally replenish field health, alleviate erosion and introduce a more beneficial growth cycle.

The honeybee population has been hungry, according to the USDA. And, because of an especially hard winter in the Midwest, more have died this year than usual. The plight of the honeybees and their dwindling food supply is complicated by virus infestations and by a mysterious affliction known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) which is decimating bee populations around the world.

A May 2013 USDA report noted "that there are multiple factors playing a role in honey bee colony declines, including parasites and disease, genetics, poor nutrition and pesticide exposure." That report confirmed the important link between healthy bees and agricultural production, a fact that has worried agricultural analysts for years.

The states targeted for aid include Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and both North and South Dakota. Dairy farmers and ranchers alike will be eligible for the reseeding funds, according to Jason Weller, in charge of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. It is hoped that the effort will help to stem the loss of honeybees; estimates are that winter losses of bees could be as high as 30 percent of the hives.

Commercial beekeepers move their hives throughout the year in an effort to pollinate crops and keep the bees well-fed. As many as 65 percent spend at least part of the year in the targeted five Midwestern states. From the upper Midwest to California and the states in between, the bees feast on everything from clover to fields of flowers and fruit tree blooms. "Honey bee pollination supports an estimated $15 billion worth of agricultural production, including more than 130 fruits and vegetables that are the foundation of a nutritious diet," according to the USDA announcement.

The effort to improve the bee habitat and return to a more natural food supply is also good for the farmers, according to USDA spokesmen, who encourage farmers to plant "cover crops" following their regular harvests of soybeans and corn. Such practices, they say, will not only help feed the bees and grazing animals, but will also improve soil conditions. Qualifying farmers and ranchers may also obtain funds to improve fencing, install new water tanks and utilize other measures to assist them in moving animals from one pasture to another.

Interested farmers and ranchers must apply for funding by March 21. Additional information about the program is available from the USDA's National Resources Conservation Service website.

Increasing natural forage may enable beekeepers to eliminate some practices previously employed by commercial beekeepers, such as supplemental feeding with high-fructose corn syrup. USDA researchers and entomologists note that coordinated efforts are paying off, resulting in better practices, increased knowledge and a greater understanding of existing problems. The agency has partners with universities, growers and researchers in the attempt to study the situation and solve the problems. It is estimated that one-third of all food and beverages are made possible by pollination, mainly by honeybees.

The underlying concern about CCD and certain viruses is still present; but, progress is being made. Even though researchers are not in total agreement, British and American scientists have made recent, notable strides in identifying specific viruses and even developing ways to fight the hive diseases.

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