By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA — With all the buzz about the looming “fiscal cliff” in neighboring Washington, D.C., one new state program could get stung — grants for beekeepers.
To compensate Virginia’s roughly 3,000 beekeepers as they fend off pests endangering an estimated 30,0000-plus hives around the state, lawmakers this spring established the Beehive Grant Program, offering keepers $200 per hive built.
But the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, responsible for administering the grant, has a bee in its bonnet. The agency doesn’t have the money for the staff time needed to set up and run the program.
So, per Gov. Bob McDonnell’s demand that all state agencies propose possible ways to slash budgets by 4 percent over the next two years, the agency decided to cut $125,000 of the $250,000 in funding for the new program.
“We haven’t done this (grant) before so I really can’t say with any certainty, but I’m sure you know that any time you administer a grant there’s a lot of administrative detail,” said Elaine Lidholm, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“And it does take a lot of staff time,” added Lidholm. “But unfortunately they only gave us the actual grant funds. They didn’t give us money like to hire a part-time person to manage the program. And anytime staff takes on new responsibilities, then they have to decide, well, if I do this, what don’t I do?”
The cuts are far from certain, as the fiscal cliff might be avoided, and the governor has the discretion to make cuts elsewhere. Nevertheless, the grant adds administrative hurdles on keepers and state staff.
While beekeepers may run their own private beehives without state involvement, they’ll have to register as keepers with the state and agree to inspections to qualify for the grant. And state staff has to decide how to determine who qualifies.
‘We’re developing the guidelines for the grant,” said Keith Tilgor, state apiarist, or beekeeper.
Five people work in the Richmond Office of Plant Industry Services, the body most directly responsible for the grant. Lidholm said she can’t estimate how many additional staff hours it would take to run the program or how many applicants there might be, since applications won’t be accepted before January. But if inquiries are any indication of how many will apply, staff members will be swarmed with paperwork, she said.
The grant — originally proposed as a tax credit by Delegate Edward Scott, R-Culpeper, and Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville — offers beekeepers up to $200 per hive and $2,400 per keeper to establish new hives, a critical need in the commonwealth, according to beekeeping experts.
In recent decades, foreign mites and beetles have crept into the state, weakening the bee population so much that too few bees survive to winter, said Robert Stapleton, first vice president of the roughly 1,600-member Virginia State Beekeepers Association. If fewer than say 35,000 bees in a colony survive, there aren’t enough to keep the colony warm and alive through the cold months.
“It’s been a problem for 25 or 30 years with various things that have been introduced to the country, but being that the majority of people involved are hobby beekeepers, it doesn’t really get much attention,” Stapleton told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau.
About 95 percent of beekeepers are in the business purely for pleasure, tending to two to five hives, said Stapleton. But for them, the grant could cover roughly the entire cost of establishing new hives.
“Right now, I think that they were looking at this as a way to get started back into the bee business with some help from the state,” said Stapleton.
Maintaining the bee population matters, he said.
“You have to look at what impact the honeybees have on the food industry,” said Stapleton. “Without honeybees, you’re not going to have about two-thirds of your food crop that you’re used to.”
It’s unfortunate to think of slashing a state program that’s barely begun, said Lidholm, but, “This would at least be some money we could give up.”
— Edited by John Trump at [email protected]