Washington beekeepers lobby for lower taxes, more forage

Honeybees on display March 5 on the Capitol Campus in Olympia.

OLYMPIA — Full-time beekeepers and hobbyist apiarists were on the Capitol Campus Thursday to draw attention to the plight of the honeybee.

The good news, according to Central Washington beekeeper Tim Hiatt, is that only alarmists think honeybees will go extinct and humankind will follow. The bad news, he said, is that bees in Washington lack forage, which has economic consequences for pollinators and their customers.

Hiatt said he’s spending more than ever nourishing his bees, $205 a year on each hive. He has 12,000 hives.

If the Washington bee industry falters, it will show up in the cost of pollinating services, he said. Right now, his bees are pollinating almonds in California, where the demand is high and hives will fetch $160 to $170 for the season, he said.

Soon, the hives will come north to Washington to pollinate fruit trees. Hiatt, a Ephrata resident, said he expects to get $40 to $50 per hive.

“We would like a steady supply of beekeepers for pollinators in Washington,” he said.

Toward that end, beekeepers, who set up displays outside the Legislative Building for “Honeybee Awareness Day,” are lobbying for two bills.

Senate Bill 5017 would permanently give beekeepers the same favorable tax treatment enjoyed by agricultural producers. For tax purposes, beekeepers and their services and products are not defined as part of the state’s agricultural industry.

The bill would cut taxes on income from pollinating services and bee products, such as honey. Other tax benefits would include being able to buy and repair equipment without paying sales taxes.

The bill, sponsored by Yakima Valley Republican Jim Honeyford, passed the Senate Agriculture, Water and Rural Economic Development Committee, but has not won approval from the Senate budget committee.

The tax exemptions would cost state coffers $85,000 and local governments $27,000 a year in lost revenue, according to an estimate by the Office of Financial Management.

An argument for the bill is that out-of-state beekeepers pollinate and leave without paying business taxes, putting in-state beekeepers at a financial disadvantage.

“If everybody paid the tax, I wouldn’t care,” Hiatt said.

House Bill 1654, sponsored by Edmonds Democrat Strom Peterson, would require the state Noxious Weed Control Board to evaluate the advantages of replacing pollen- and nectar-rich noxious weeds with plants with similar benefits for honeybees. The bill passed the House on Friday on a 67-31 vote. Yakima Valley Republican David Taylor warned that planting forage could unwittingly introduced new noxious weeds.

Dayton beekeeper Paul Hosticka, who has about 100 hives in the southeast corner of the state, has been producing honey for 40 years. He said his bees have been losing forage to grass and that he needs a lot more forage than small-scale planting can provide. “We’re talking about square miles, not square feet,” he said.

Hiatt was on a 12-member group set up by the Legislature to make policy recommendations to help the bee. The tax and forage bills grew out of the report.

The study group did not cite as a major problem neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides banned in a handful of cities because of their purported harm to honeybees. The study group concluded the scientific evidence did not warrant banning neonicotinoids.

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