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It’s a hot Saturday in July and Jay Jones is speaking tenderly to a few of his 1.5 million bees, soaring furiously in and out of some 20 hives. “Come on, baby.” With his hand, Jones is gently steering a wayward bee back into a hive. “Oh, I’m sorry, baby.” He nearly crushes a bee as he adjusts the roof of another hive. As the midday temperature climbs at Jones’ Northern Virginia apiary, OneWildHoney Inc. (a term Jones also uses to describe his wife, Marlyse), Jones — clad in Birkenstocks, blue-jean shorts, and protective face gear — effortlessly bounces back and forth among the hives at his home in Centreville, serving up tidbits about bees, including their lascivious mating rituals. Jones has “a fascination with the perfect order of bees” and gives a great deal of attention and intimacy to the welfare of his apiary. And his honey, tasting strongly of clover, raspberry, and other nectar sources his bees feast on, is of premium quality. Though beekeeping is a hobby for him (by day he’s the senior vice president for global public service sales at BearingPoint), it’s the livelihood for many U.S. honey producers, who say they are being hurt by a series of issues facing their industry and so have stepped up their lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. And it’s not just honey but other reliable American commodities such as garlic, crawfish, and mushrooms that are also facing hard times in this era of globalization as foreign countries flood U.S. markets with cheaper variations. “The American housewife doesn’t care about American honey — all she wants is something cheap,” says David Hackenberg, a commercial beekeeper who operates 3,000 colonies of honeybees in six states on the East Coast. The value of U.S. imports in 2001, the most recent date for which figures are available, was about $71.6 million, down 20 percent from the year before, according to the Honey Research, Promotion, and Consumer Information Order. The American Honey Producers Association, which represents the commercial honey industry in the United States and of which Jones is a member, is currently working Capitol Hill to deal with its mounting problems: foreign importation of cheap honey, securing federal dollars to study ways to eliminate Varroa mites (which kill bees), and finding ways to expedite shipments of queen bees to the industry’s breadbasket, or honey pot, if you will — upper Midwestern states such as Montana and North Dakota. It’s an ambitious agenda for an industry without huge Washington resources and that produces about 170 million pounds of honey annually, while domestic consumption is between 350 and 360 million pounds. “The long and short of it is, the U.S. honey industry is trying to do their best to eliminate any imports, yet they can’t supply the demand,” says one domestic honey packager and distributor of foreign honey, who asked not to be identified because he’s fighting efforts to penalize foreign importers of honey. “They don’t have a goal to meet U.S. demand. Their goal is to get as high a price for their production as they possibly can.” STICKY BUSINESS The United States buys honey from all over the world — from China, Argentina, Canada, and Mexico, as well as from smaller players such as India and Vietnam. According to the National Honey Board, a body that conducts research and advertising to expand both domestic and foreign honey markets, $13.5 million worth of honey was imported from foreign countries in 2005 compared with $10.8 million in 2004. But domestic producers of honey like Jones say their attention to honey detail is lost on other foreign countries such as China, everyone’s favorite whipping boy in the industry. In 2005 the Asian giant dumped 90 million pounds of honey into the U.S. market, according to estimates from the National Honey Board. “Their [Chinese] hives are next to the roads; honey is extracted from the combs into the open air. There are no quality standards at all,” says Jerry Brown, executive secretary of the American Honey Producers Association. While the association is well represented in Washington — Kelley Drye & Warren handles its interests before the Commerce Department, and Winston & Strawn has handled its Capitol Hill work since 1998 — its funds are limited. Brown says the majority of the association’s money comes from donations and membership dues. Commercial honey producers, those with more than 300 hives, pay annual dues of $300 but tend to give thousands in donations, Brown notes. He estimates that the association’s current cash flow is three-quarters of a million dollars. Yet in the past year the association has spent handsomely on lobbying. According to Senate lobby disclosure filings, the association paid Winston & Strawn $480,000 in 2005, a $100,000 increase from 2004 and a $420,000 increase from 2003. Last year, Winston & Strawn lobbied to secure economic assistance for honey producers, funding for honeybee research, and passage of the New Shipper Review Amendment Act of 2005, which would temporarily suspend new shipper bonding privileges until 2009. The measure passed the House last year, though it was tucked into the House pension bill that passed this July. It awaits reconciliation in the Senate. “They [Chinese] are bringing in millions of pounds of honey and running up a 10 million-dollar bill, and then just running away, ruining our honey market,” says Steve Park, president of the association. Lobbyists for the industry stress to lawmakers that, while they are concerned about the U.S. honey producers, the larger issue involves maintaining a healthy supply of bees in the United States, as many crops — from blueberries in Maine to almonds in California — are dependent on pollination. Pollen, which bees deposit on the stigma of a flower, allows for a fruit or seed to be produced, thereby ensuring reproduction. “Ninety crops rely on commercial pollination,” says John Waits of Winston & Strawn. “Our guys are fond of saying, �Every third bite of food has been pollinated by honeybees.’ It’s a small industry, but it has a large impact.” But explaining the larger picture of pollination to a lawmaker or congressional staffer unfamiliar with agricultural issues is not often an easy sell. “As people come further away from the realization that their food comes from farm animals and not, so to speak, from Safeway, it’s more difficult,” says Troy Fore, executive director of the American Beekeeping Federation, which represents the interests of U.S. beekeepers. “I was there [Washington, D.C.] this May and we didn’t have to do a Biology 101 class, but it’s not unusual to find people you really have to explain this to.” BEES ON A PLANE! Though the U.S. Postal Service once did a lot of its own shipping of bees, in recent years it has contracted out such work to other carriers. The nursery belt for queen bees is warmer states in the Southeast along with California and Hawaii. With many beekeepers living in rural towns and with commercial beekeepers seeking to replace their queens once a year, the bees need to be shipped immediately and at optimal climates. “The shipments really need to be overnight,” says George Hansen, a producer who represents the western United States for the American Beekeeping Federation. “A lot of money is being lost by the bee industry to get a consistent method of shipping this perishable [crop].” FedEx, for one, doesn’t ship bees or any animals. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has introduced a bill that would require the U.S. Postal Service to mandate in its shipping contracts with other air carriers that it will carry live animals. Though the lobby has had success at maintaining the status quo when it comes to funding for bee research, it has been unsuccessful at increasing federal spending for the four labs in the country dedicated to such work. This year, Congress preserved, but did not increase, the $6.5 million in funds the labs receive annually. The fate of the U.S. honey industry is unknown. As for Jones, he says he’ll likely produce 1,500 to 1,800 pounds of honey this year, an increase from the 1,200 to 1,500 pounds he produced in 2005.
Joe Crea can be contacted at [email protected].

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