These are bittersweet times in the honey business.
Uncle Sam, with warehouses full, feels stung. The Chinese are combing off the profits. American commercial beekeepers' cries of gloom and doom are waxing toward despair. But Congress is trying to get them back in clover. All of which is to say:
The administration, facing costs of $56 million or more this year to buy surpluses, is asking Congress to modify the federal honey price-support program by giving the agriculture secretary the authority to reduce the loan rates.
An influx of lower-priced imported honey over the past several years, much of it from China, has created an excess on the American market and has sent more of the U.S.-produced sweetener into federal storehouses.
The U.S. beekeepers are pushing Congress to resist President Reagan's move against price supports, while lobbying at the same time for a bill that would increase the tariff on imports, a move they think will make the Chinese buzz off.
Meanwhile, the Agriculture Department, claiming that leaking containers are turning warehouses into sticky messes of oozing honey, is proposing to require beekeepers to use more expensive, safer barrels. The bee people are as mad as, well, hornets, over that.
Now, while it may make some sport to drone on with honey puns, there is a critical side to all this for American agriculture. Farmers rely on honeybees to pollinate many crops, from apples and almonds to blueberries and alfalfa. Keepers commonly lease their colonies to farmers to carry out the pollination.
"Imports, if they continue to increase, will have an impact on the number of colonies that American beekeepers maintain," said Hachiro Shimanuki, one of the USDA's top bee researchers at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center.
What Shimanuki is saying is that a large U.S. bee population has to be maintained to assure that pollination goes on. It is just too much to expect that Chinese honeybees would fly all the way to, say, an alfalfa field in Minnesota that feeds a dairy or beef herd.
"Few people think about the pollination value of the honeybee," he continued. "But this industry is very important to all of agriculture. Our diet is interesting because of its variety, and much of that variety--apples, avocados, blueberries, you name it--relies on pollination by bees."
Shimanuki and others agree that commercial bees assume a larger role in agriculture because of other factors as well. The wild bee population has declined because of pesticides and a habitat drastically altered by the clearing of trees and brush in rural areas.
Richard Adee of Bruce, S.D., a large-scale beekeeper who is vice president of the 650-member American Honey Producers Association, said he is worried about what's happening in his industry. "It's a critical situation," he said. "Our big markets are lost and it appears the government program will take over about 75 million pounds of our 220-million-pound 1982 crop.
"The United States has become a honey dumping ground for the world because we have only a 1-cent-per-pound tariff. We can't get into markets like Mexico, the European Common Market or Japan because they have high duties. Foreign producers look at our 1-cent tariff and bring their honey here."
Mexico continues in its long-time role as the leading U.S. source of foreign honey, but during the past three years China has entered the U.S. market in a big way and has become the second-largest source. Lower costs make the Chinese honey more attractive to U.S. processors.
Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), a 4H Club beekeeper in his youth, has introduced legislation aimed at raising the penny tariff to 10 cents, a move he thinks would deter imports, restore stability to the U.S. industry and cut federal support costs.
"This legislation is a little bit out of character for me," he said. "I'm usually not this much of a protectionist. But these are unusual circumstances. Everyone, whether urban or rural, has this basic interest in a healthy bee industry because of the cross-pollination aspects.
"I know it is extremely difficult to sell, but we are running in a dangerous direction if we do not keep enough bees in this country," Pressler said. "We may not have enough bees--they do not abound naturally now because the habitat has changed."
It's enough to give one the hives.