IN WORLD WAR II, even the nation's bees contributed. Their honey was a substitute for sugar, which was rationed. Their wax was used instead of scarce petroleum products to waterproof ammunition and other war equipment. The beekeeping industry was classified as war-essential.
After the war there was, unfortunately, a bee glut. Honey prices fell, and the beekeepers did just what you would expect them to: they swarmed to Congress. They justified their request for help on grounds that bees remained essential -- to pollinate the nation's crops. A honey price support program was duly written into the 1949 farm bill. It was done, the House Agriculture Committee solemnly explained in its report, "in order to have a bee population in the United States capable of doing the pollinating job." The report writer -- well, he waxed eloquent. "It appears obvious to the committee," he said, "that, if these vitally important insects are to be maintained in sufficient numbers to pollinate our crops, the beekeeping industry must have immediate assistance."
We know all this thanks to the General Accounting Office. It has just issued a marvelous report catchily entitled "Federal Price Support for Honey Should Be Phased Out." GAO reports are not universally admired for their literary qualities; they drone, you know. But this one is a perfect fable. The same thing is happening to bees as to all other producers of supported farm products. The support price is above the world market price, and they are being brought to -- yes -- their knees by imports. Much of the honey now consumed in this country comes from Mexico, China, Argentina and Canada. The nation had 211,700 beekeepers at last count, but most were in the business part-time or for fun. Only about 1,700 were commercial beekeepers. They, however, operated about half the nation's 4.2 million honeybee colonies. The commercial beekeepers, GAO reports, are migratory, following the blooms or what is known as the honey flow, then wintering where it is warm. The state with the most colonies is Florida, followed by North and South Dakota, Georgia, Nebraska and New York. In recent years these relatively few commercial keepers have drawn increasing shares of their income literally from the federal honeypot. The honey program works much like all others. There is a federal loan rate that is indexed; it rises with inflation. If the market price is under this support level, the beekeepers can put their honey on loan to the government. They can then redeem their honey if the price goes up or walk away from the loans and keep the money.
In each of the four years from 1980 through 1983 about 200 million pounds of honey were produced in the United States. In 1980 only 5.3 million pounds were finally forfeited, at a cost to the taxpayers of $2.7 million. But in each succeeding year the forfeiture rate rose. In 1983 the government was stuck with almost 106 million pounds, which cost it $65.7 million. The total program cost was about $164 million in the four years GAO studied. Large gobs of this apparently went to a handful of very large producers; in North Dakota in 1982, for example, one producer left about 2.5 million pounds with the government and pocketed about $1.5 million. That's a lot of money just for being landlord to some insects.
The administration has also recommended that the program be ended. The Senate Agriculture Committee has agreed in its version of the farm bill only to phase down the support levels. The House committee would preserve present law. That is the wrong thing to do. There are a lot of complicated questions in the farm bill. This should not be one of them.