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Beekeepers seek help from state lawmakers
Farm tax exemption, colony collapse among issues aired during hearing
When Eastern Washington beekeeper Sue Olson went to Olympia on Jan. 21 to testify in favor of legislation that would benefit beekeepers, she had an important message to share.
"We're just asking to be qualified as farmers," she said.
Under SB6468, sponsored Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, and SB6299, sponsored by Sen. Marilyn Rasmussen, D-Eatonville, beekeepers would be exempt from the business and occupation tax on pollination services as well as from sales tax on the sale and use of bees.
In addition, SB6468 would allow beekeepers to use farm diesel, which is untaxed, when transporting bee products on public roads, such as moving hives to and from summer forage grounds.
Most farmers and agricultural services already qualify for these exemptions.
During the Senate Agriculture and Rural Economic Development Committee public hearing, King said the bills would let beekeepers take the money they pay in state taxes and invest it in the health of their hives instead.
"Beekeepers are very important to Washington, particularly agricultural areas on both sides of the Cascades," King said. "But they're under a lot of strain because of a mysterious disorder that is causing bee colonies to die off."
Beekeeper Jerry Tate told committee members he supports the two bills because they'll help commercial beekeepers.
He warned that the loss of bees affects everything in agriculture.
"We need to be treating bees like they're a part of agriculture," he said. "We feel like they're the most important part of agriculture."
For Olson, the legislation addresses a small part of a much larger problem: massive dieoffs.
During the hearing on the bills, Olson told committee members that from last August to this January, dieoffs have resulted in $1.25 million in losses for Olson's Honey, a Yakima company that she and her husband, Eric, own.
The Olsons have 13,000 hives, 4,500 of which are taken to Western Washington to pollinate berries during bloom time.
During her testimony, Olson said the couple's beekeeping operation experienced up to 90 percent mortality of the bees that were sent to Western Washington to pollinate berries last summer.
"We don't know what's happening or where it's happening," she told committee members. "We start out with good, strong hives. It's really frustrating."
Under normal circumstances, when the bees have finished pollinating cranberries in mid-July, they're taken up to the fireweed in the high country so they can make the honey they need to get them through the months before they're taken to the almonds in California in November.
But Olson said this could be the last year they can take the bees over the mountains for cranberries because they can't keep losing money.
Although she can't pinpoint the reason the bees are dying after they go to Western Washington, she told committee members that one reason might be that there's just not enough forage for them.
In a telephone interview with the Capital Press after the committee meeting, Olson said the dearth of forage might be caused by widespread roadside spraying, which kills plants and weeds the bees need for honey making.
Or it could be that the maritime weather on the west side of the mountains, which limits the amount of time the bees are out and flying, is causing a buildup of tracheal mites in the bees.
Whatever the reason - or reasons - Western Washington isn't a place the Olsons want to take their bees.
"Our bees that we use in Central Washington and the Dakotas don't have the same problems as the bees we use in Western Washington," she said.
Cranberry growers warned committee members that without bees, their crops will experience a "dreadful decline."
Kevin Hatton of Grayland said that cranberry growers in his area would experience a 50 percent crop loss, which would translate into a $4 million hit.
Committee members became so concerned listening to the beekeepers' testimony that they decided proactive steps such as pushing for more federal research dollars and joining with other Western states to leverage research efforts should be taken.
"We are very, very concerned," said Rasmussen. "We want to solve it."
Committee members are expected to add some amendments to the bills and merge them into one bill.
Staff writer Cookson Beecher is based in Sedro-Woolley, Wash. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org