Highways BEE Act

There’s new legislation just proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Highways Bettering the Economy and Environment Act (BEE Act), designed to improve the lot of non-voters: wild bees and managed honeybees. The act was introduced by two representatives who co-chair the Congressional Pollinator Protection Caucus, one from Florida and the other from California, both important states for agriculture in general and beekeeping in particular.

The BEE Act focuses on improving habitat for bees and other pollinators along about 17 million acres of roadside rights-of-way, a huge opportunity to provide enhanced forage and nesting sites for beneficial insects. The concept is not old; managing vegetation along roadways to enhance nectar and pollen-producing plants and reduce disruptions of nesting sites has been proposed by bee-lovers for many decades.

The bill proposes two components, reduced mowing and enhanced plants for pollinators, which together would create habitat that not only would support bees, but also would benefit monarch butterflies, ground-nesting birds and other wildlife. Farms nearby would profit through improved pollination services.

These benefits are no-brainers for bee and wildlife lovers, but the Act also notes that the proposed roadside habitats would significantly reduce mowing and other costs for the state Departments of Transportation responsible for roadside maintenance.

So why am I disappointed? As they say in Texas, the BEE Act is all hat and no cattle, lacking legislated actions that would affect change. The Act encourages but doesn’t insist, allocating no new funding and limiting implementation to those state Departments of Transportation willing to participate.

I suppose the charged political environment in the US precludes legislation that requires state action, and perhaps the BEE Act’s polite reminder that we can, indeed, do things to save the bees is better than nothing. But I grew up in an era when more was expected of government than platitudes and recommendations, and can’t shake my fundamental belief that the reason we elect officials is to act when faced with overwhelming evidence of problems and feasible, affordable steps towards solutions.

It’s a simple equation: bees need diverse and abundant nectar and pollen-producing flowers to survive and thrive. The millions of roadside acres available for vegetation management would provide a substantial resource at a time when wild bees are becoming scarcer and managed honeybees are dying.

Bees are just one more victim of America’s political paralysis, collateral damage in a system with diminished capacity to act for those endangered by our extensive terra-forming of the globe.

Without teeth to enforce and funding to implement, the BEE Act provides the illusion of action while bees continue to decline. It’s the worst kind of tragedy, one that is preventable and about which we are doing way too little.