How Doth the Busy Little Civil Servant. . .?

GEORGE F. WILL

January 07, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- It makes you wonder what bees did to keep themselves busy before the federal government organized and subsidized them. If Bill Clinton keeps his promise about the honey program, many beekeepers will go bust, and much important pollination will not happen, and the cost to the economy will be staggering. Or so the beekeepers say.

Last summer candidate Clinton, casting around for a way to seem frugal while making as few people as possible cross, said that as president he would end the price-support program for honey. It cost $18.6 million last year, enough to pay 98 minutes worth of interest on the national debt.

Government got interested in honeybees during the Second World War, when honey was valued as a sugar substitute and beeswax was used to waterproof ammunition and other stuff. Then the war ended, and for beekeepers, peace was hell. Sugar rationing ended, and the price of honey plummeted almost to prewar levels.

Beekeepers, being as American as apple pie made from subsidized apples, sought a subsidy. In 1950 they got one. Eventually government was spending money to store surplus honey that it spent money to encourage beekeepers to produce, and Americans were buying cheaper imported honey.

To the untutored eye, this looks silly. After being tutored by friends of the honey program, which actually is more about pollination than honey, it looks even sillier.

Wind, gravity and insects contribute to pollination, but honeybees are the best pollinators because of their superior work ethic -- they are methodical and they don't eat the plants they service. An Agriculture Department report says an estimated 15 percent of the plant-derived portion of our diets comes from plants dependent on or helped by insect pollination.

Furthermore, beef and dairy products come from cattle that eat forage crops such as alfalfa and clover that benefit from insect pollination. So one-third of the human diet is involved in such pollination, not to mention (but bee boosters do mention) services rendered by pollinating insects to plants that provide food and shelter to wild animals, curtail soil erosion and make the outdoors pretty.

Lawrence Connor, entomologist and secretary treasurer of the American Honey Producers Association, commits a remarkable -- even by Washington standards -- exercise in intellectual overreaching in defense of the subsidy. Think, he says, of American agriculture and food processing as an enormous triangle balanced precariously on one of its points. The tiny tip of that point, on which all depends, is the beekeeping industry. Eliminate the subsidy, you will annihilate that industry and the inverted pyramid will collapse, costing consumers billions.

''Take but degree away, untune that string, and, hark! what discord follows,'' said Shakespeare, who could have been a bang-up lobbyist. Kill the honey program, Mr. Connor says, and expansion of the blueberry barrens in Maine will stop, and California almond growers will switch to crops not requiring honeybee pollination.

Soon airline passengers will not get those little packages of nuts. Gosh.

Richard Adee of Bruce, South Dakota, president of the honey producers, says producers are suffering from a tidal wave of cheap imported honey. Some beekeepers say they would trade the existing subsidy for . . . another subsidy, in the form of higher tariffs on imported honey. If Washington works as usual, they will keep the 43-year-old subsidy and get the tariff, too.

But rhetorically, at least, defenders of the current program go too far, thereby refuting themselves. If bees are the prodigies of wealth-creation that beekeepers claim, surely they do not need a subsidy.

The Agriculture Department report says the value added by honeybees to American agriculture is a matter of ''considerable controversy,'' but a frequently cited academic study says the increased yields and quality of 49 major crops achieved through controlled honeybee pollination was about $9.3 billion in 1985.

Now, there are lots of honeybees who are not federal employees. They are bees busily pollinating without the incentive of a subsidy, just because they are bees. But the $9.3 billion figure is for value added just by the bees that are, in effect, civil servants. Which suggests a thought.

If an $18.6 million annual subsidy produces $9.3 billion of agriculture value added, why can't beekeepers charge farmers $18.6 million more for their pollination services (or $186 million, for that matter), and let the government get its sticky fingers out of honey?

What will happen to Mr. Clinton's promise to terminate the honey program? You would think the 3,000 to 5,000 beekeepers who benefit from the program would be no match for a glistening new president cloaked in the majesty of a national mandate. But bet on the beekeepers. Any foolishness now in its fifth decade will not be ended merely because it is foolish.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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