The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Ethanol and Honey Bees 2.0

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted December 28, 2015

The White House has honey bees – an estimated 70,000 of them that call a hive near the South Lawn home. Below, they buzz some kids during story time at this year’s Easter Egg Roll:

Yet, nationwide bees are struggling. Researchers have warned of declining numbers of bees and other “pollinators” – to the point that last year the White House set up a task force to develop a bee strategy to help reverse the trend. From the White House blog:

Increasing the quantity and quality of habitat for pollinators is a major part of this effort—with actions ranging from the construction of pollinator gardens at Federal buildings to the restoration of millions of acres of Federally managed lands and similar actions on private lands. To support these habitat-focused efforts, USDA and the Department of Interior are today issuing a set of Pollinator-Friendly Best Management Practices for Federal Lands, providing  practical guidance for planners and managers with land stewardship responsibilities.

We acknowledged the bee situation in a post nearly a year ago, noting that the large-scale conversion of grasslands to grow crops for a number of uses was crowding out bees, butterflies and others – including increasing acreage being devoted to ethanol production. Now a new, comprehensive study by University of Vermont researchers underscores the point – that U.S. wild bees are disappearing in many of the country’s most important farmlands and that increased demand for corn to use in biofuel production is a significant part of the problem.

The findings were published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team led by Insu Koh estimated that the wild bee population shrank 23 percent in the U.S. between 2008 and 2013. The study also shows that 39 percent of U.S. croplands that depend on pollinators face a mismatch between rising demand for pollination and a falling supply of wild bees. 

bee_map

From the university’s press release on the study:

“It’s clear that pollinators are in trouble,” says Taylor Ricketts, the senior author on the new study and director of UVM’s Gund Institute. “But what’s been less clear is where they are in the most trouble — and where their decline will have the most consequence for farms and food.”

As for the ethanol link, the study found that in 11 key states where bees are in decline, the amount of land tilled to grow corn spiked by 200 percent in five years — replacing grasslands and pastures that once supported bee populations. The study:

Recent trends also correspond to increasing agricultural land use over time. Areas of bee abundance where declines are most certain tend to have experienced additional conversion of natural land covers to crops, especially corn. These results reinforce recent evidence that increased demand for corn in biofuel production has intensified threats to natural habitats in corn-growing regions.

This study follows others raising flags about the food-for-fuel phenomenon associated with ethanol mandates under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). A number of organizations have expressed concern about a trend toward growing corn to produce ethanol. The Environmental Working Group is among them:

It is now clear that the federal corn ethanol mandate has driven up food prices, strained agricultural markets, increased competition for arable land and promoted conversion of uncultivated land to grow crops.

Here’s a solution: Repeal or significantly revamp the RFS and put the brakes on the program’s mandates for increasing ethanol production, the vast majority of it coming from corn. This would help neutralize the food-for-fuel problem and avoid hitting the ethanol “blend wall” – the point where required ethanol use in the fuel supply exceeds the safe blending limit of 10 percent. It would end the RFS’ market-distorting impacts resulting from efforts to force fuels onto the market for which there is little consumer interest.

And it would help save the bees.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.