It's going to take an act of Congress, but it looks as if they're finally going to free the queen bees and therein lies a, well, a honey of a little tale.
What it's about is the bee germ plasm amendment that Rep. Glenn English (D-Okla.) is trying to get included in the farm bill pending before the House. "A sting? No, you could call it the English Sweetener, since it won't cost the taxpayers anything," he said the other day.
The amendment, already put in the Senate version of the bill by Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), would authorize the Department of Agriculture to release germ plasm-- queen bees, actually--from its laboratories to help bee breeders improve their apian strains.
For once, there's no apparent controversy over this one, and there is some hope that new bee strains developed by USDA extension researchers in Wisconsin and Louisiana will help increase honey production.
"Actually," English said, "we've had more inquiries about this amendment than anything else we've proposed of a larger nature for the farm bill.
"USDA supports the amendment and so do our committee leaders. I don't think there'll be a great debate over this one."
The problem, as explained by Dr. Marshall Levin of USDA's Beltsville, Md., research center, is that current law allows the department to turn over plant germ plasm to private industry, such as seed companies, but it cannot do so with animal germ plasm.
The Boren-English amendment would change that as far as it applies to bee plasm.
"This is the third year we've tried to get an amendment like this adopted, but it's just not that interesting to people," Levin said.
Actually, a pretty good case could be made that people ought to care enormously about the fate of the honey bee.
American bees produce more than 20 million gallons of honey a year, but that's only part of the story.
As urban development and farm expansion have wiped out some habitats of free-flying insects, such as the bumble bee, colonies of honey bees have assumed a larger, more important role in pollinating agricultural crops.
"The honey bee is responsible for 90 to 95 percent of all the plant pollination done by insects," said Richard Adee, a major honey producer and bee breeder from Bruce, S.D.
"Fruit crops and many vegetables depend on bee pollination and there are even other wind-pollinated crops that benefit from bees."
In Virginia, California and Washington state, for example, fruit growers contract with beekeepers to bring their colonies into the orchards to assist in the pollination.
Without them, there's no telling what would happen, but it wouldn't be sweet.
The other side of this, according to Adee, is that genetic work by private bee breeders and government researchers has helped U.S. honey production remain fairly steady for the last 25 years, even though there are fewer succulent fields of alfalfa clover and wildflowers for the little creatures to romp in.
"It's really incredible that we've held our own. Without the improved breeds, we would have slipped, no doubt about it," said Adee, a second-generation bee breeder.
That's where the breeders (apiculturists, they're called) hope the English-Boren amendment will help them out. It would let USDA scientists at Madison, Wis., release a newly developed strain of queen bee that reproduces good honey-makers that have turned out to be rather docile, another trait they breed for.
Dr. Levin didn't mind being interviewed, but he had just one request. "Try to resist the temptation to get cutesy with this," he waxed sweetly. Enough said.