Subscribe for 33¢ / day

The buzz in the honeybee industry these days is about something beekeepers have never had before - crop insurance.

Some beekeepers say the new program is expensive and amounts to betting on the weather. Others say it's better than having no protection at all.

"In general, we think it's great," said Troy Fore, executive director of the American Beekeeping Federation. "We've been trying to get this for years."

The federal Risk Management Agency's experimental apiculture program uses either a rainfall or vegetation index, depending on the particular area of the country. Whether beekeepers get a payment would depend on the amount of rainfall or the amount of greenness.

"We're not insuring the bees. We're not insuring the honey. We're not insuring the bees' health," said Shirley Pugh, spokeswoman for the RMA, which is part of the federal Agriculture Department. "We're ensuring the conditions that the bees might require for expected (honey) production."

North Dakota beekeeper Will Nissen is skeptical. He would rather the government find a way to insure actual production, as it does for other crops.

"It's like going to Vegas," he said of the experimental program. "It's like a crapshoot on whether it's going to rain or not. It has nothing to do with the honey crop, and that's what we're all about - the honey crop."

Texas beekeeper Daniel Weaver, who has worked for years to get an insurance program for beekeepers, said basing a program on production history would be almost impossible for honey because of the nomadic nature of bee colonies.

For example, beekeepers in North Dakota, the nation's top honey-producing state, typically move their bees to California, the second-leading producer, during the winter, where the bees pollinate such crops as almonds.

"It would just be frankly overwhelming for RMA and insurance companies to do it that way," Weaver said of the idea of having farmers document yield data that could be used for insurance purposes. "We felt this (the pilot program) was a very simple program conceptually. You basically get a payment if there's a deviation of rainfall. At least it will allow beekeepers to get some risk protection for one of the chief influences of honey production.

"It took a while to convince RMA that it can be an insurable crop," Weaver said. "In searching for something that would make RMA happy, we seized on this."

The new program is available in North Dakota and 20 other states. It is not available in California, something that irritates Bob Miller, a central California beekeeper whose state produces much of the nation's honey.

"We desperately need something like that," he said. "To me it just doesn't make sense that they'd exclude California. Maybe they think the loss potential is greater in California."

Pugh said the testing of the apiculture program is similar to the testing of a pasture and rangeland program that has proven popular among ranchers.

"It's only available in selected states and counties to test each index in various climates, soils and weather conditions," she said. "We made it available in six regions across the country: the warm and humid Southeast, the cool and humid Northeast, the Northern Great Plains, the Southern Great Plains, the semiarid Southwest and the intermountain region of the Northwest."

Pugh said it likely will be several growing seasons before officials decide whether to make the insurance program permanent. If that happens, the coverage might be offered in California, she said.

Nissen wonders whether many producers can afford it. Even with the government subsidizing about half the premium, it would cost him tens of thousands of dollars a year, he said.

The program also does not insure against Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious phenomenon killing off hives worldwide. Beekeepers say they understand that the government cannot offer insurance against such a threat when scientists have been unable to determine its cause.

"It would be nice to just get some good research," Nissen said.

The deadline already has passed for beekeepers to sign up for the insurance program for the 2009 crop year. Weaver said many beekeepers get up to speed on industry developments at the American Beekeeping Federation annual convention, which isn't until January.

"I don't expect there's going to be a great deal of participation the first year," regardless of what individual beekeepers think of the concept, he said.

Weaver said he thinks the apiculture insurance program will prove affordable for most beekeepers and eventually will succeed.

"We've got to walk before we can run," he said. "It's better than nothing. We got nothing in the past."