From commodity to pollinators: Bees in the farm bill

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Bees have had a place in the farm bill for almost 70 years.

But their appearance has been primarily as “livestock”,  as producers of a commodity (honey) receiving government support and protections in the marketplace.  It’s only recently that bees have also been included as pollinators, as providers of an essential service deserving of similar government support and protection in the environment. This transition is an interesting one to track throughout the various iterations of the farm bill.

Farm bills are gigantic pieces of legislation that are typically passed every four to five years. During the interim, smaller farm-related bills often appear to deal with specific topics. In most cases, both kinds of legislation alter farm policy by amending laws already written into the United States Code of law. Which means you can’t always just pick up a farm bill, read a one-paragraph section on bees, and immediately understand the impact. Instead, it often requires crawling through a labyrinthine path of bureaucratic footnotes and references in the USC to fully understand exactly what changes are being made and the impact they have.

The timeline below summarizes the transition of bees’ evolving place in the farm bill from the earliest version up to the current House bill. The timeline was created by searching through every farm bill from 1933 through the present (as well as some in-between legislation) for references to “bees”, “honey”, “beekeepers” and “pollinators”; digging through Titles 7 and 16 (Agriculture and Conservation) of the USC; and reading up on historical events to understand context. This timeline is not meant to be an exhaustive record of every single bee-related reference in every farm bill. Also, the timeline does not show every farm bill passed since 1933; if you’re interested, here’s a complete list.