Beekeepers are now ‘farmers’ in Washington state

PULLMAN, Wash. – A new law that defines Washington’s commercial beekeepers as farmers will enable the state to better reap the benefits of healthy bee populations while boosting a critical profession, according to a bee expert at Washington State University.

“Beekeepers’ work is similar in concept to managing tiny livestock,” said Steve Sheppard, chair of WSU’s Department of Entomology who works closely with the region’s beekeepers. “More than that, it’s integral to agriculture, not only for the honey that gets produced but for the pollinating of crops.”

WSU bee expert Steve Sheppard
WSU bee expert Steve Sheppard

In Washington, those crops include everything from apples, cherries and pears to canola and mint, according to the state’s agriculture department.

Tax breaks enable crucial service

“We don’t want our beekeepers going extinct because they can’t afford to stay in business,” said Sheppard, adding that the nation has been facing a dwindling supply of beekeepers in the past decade because of a mysterious honey bee die-off called colony collapse disorder.

Without enough beekeepers, crop production could decline and force consumers to pay more money for food, he said: “It only makes sense that they can get tax breaks the same as other agricultural producers do.”

Senate Bill 6057, signed by Gov. Jay Inslee this month, grants large-scale beekeepers tax breaks on earnings made from providing pollination services and from selling products such as honey and beeswax. They’ll also be exempt from paying sales taxes on production expenses such as bee feed and parasite treatments.

This doesn’t mean a backyard beekeeper with one hive can benefit from the exemptions. To qualify as an “eligible farmer,” beekeepers must register their hives with the state’s agriculture department and have gross sales of $10,000 during a year for bee-produced products or bee pollination services.

Lessens the sting

One of the largest beekeeping operations in the Northwest is run by Eric Olson of Yakima, Wash. He and his wife, Sue, manage millions of bees, trucking them to fields in Washington, Oregon and California to pollinate crops.

“Finally, we’re not being clumped together as service providers like doctors and lawyers,” said Olson, who lobbied for the legislation sponsored by Sen. Jim Honeyford of Sunnyside, Wash.

“Beekeepers have been taking big financial hits from bee die-offs and these tax breaks will lessen the sting, so to speak,” Olson said. “I’ve been doing this work since the 1970s. When I say this is a big win for Washington beekeepers, believe me, I know.”

Watch Eric Olson talk about his business and the importance of bee research to agriculture.

Learn more about WSU’s 250 bee colonies.