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Ethanol and Consequence – Honeybee Edition

Bob Greco

Bob Greco
Posted January 16, 2015

Pacific Standard magazine (PS) has an interesting longread on honeybees in its January issue. While this is not our area of expertise and we can’t judge the veracity of the entire article, there was one part that we had, unfortunately, seen before:

Over a million acres of grassland were converted to crops in five Midwestern states from 2006 to 2011, according to a study by South Dakota State University. … Across the region more than 99 percent of what was originally prairie has been converted, mostly to corn and soy for animal feed, ethanol, and sweetener … Now the entire Midwest, several beekeepers told me, has become a “corn desert.” This has wrought devastation on most anything that used to live in the fields. Monarch butterflies no longer have milkweed for laying eggs. Birds no longer have insects to eat or prairie to shelter in. Native bees are disappearing.

funnelThe years 2006 to 2011 are not a coincidence, as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) explains:

After the federal Renewable Fuel Standard was signed into law in 2007, many corn growers decided to plant corn year after year to profit from higher prices, rather than switching between corn and soybeans, for example. This transition has greatly harmed air and water quality.

And apparently bees. But not to worry, the federal government is on the case. More from PS (my bold):

“There’s no substitute for flowering plants,” Hoffman says, and rather than trying to invent one, we’re probably better off setting land aside and planting it with flowers. There are efforts to do that: Last summer the USDA announced a plan to pay Midwestern farmers to plant pollinator-friendly habitat

So, to sum it up, the government mandates that consumers pay for ethanol and then once the impacts of distorting the market hit, it steps in to have consumers, through tax dollars, pay for the consequences.  That’s what happens when governments think they’re smarter than markets.  EWG has more:

And if that wasn’t enough, corn ethanol also lowers your car’s gas mileage. With each passing month, the evidence against corn ethanol mounts. As Congress turns its focus to 2015, it should take a serious look at reforming the Renewable Fuel Standard in order to phase out corn ethanol …

For consumers, that would surely be the bee's knees.


Bob Greco is group director of downstream and industry operations at the American Petroleum Institute. With 21 years of experience, Bob directs activities related to refining, pipeline, marketing, and fuels issues. He has managed exploration and production activities, policy analysis, climate change issues, marine transportation, refining, gasoline and jet fuel production issues and Clean Air Act implementation efforts. Before coming to API, Bob was an environmental engineer with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with expertise in automotive emission control technologies. He has a M.S. degree in environmental engineering from Cornell University and a B.A. in biology from Colgate University.