Talk about government double-talk: When an EPA official says, “There are [zero] non-trivial costs to society if we get this wrong,” he means that if they don’t get the science right, then we are headed for a huge disaster.

I never paid much attention to bees until one summer day at Longleat House in the south of England when I was drinking a bottle of fruit juice, and a few drops had collected on the top. A honey bee landed on it, shared my drink, wanted more, and I put a drop on my finger and the bee devoured that as well, then flew off to tell its fellow bees it had discovered the fountain of wonderful nectar. By then, I had moved on.

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After watching a PBS Nature program in 1998 about bees being endangered by some fungus or mite, I began to notice the bees around my home. In particular, there was one rather large bumble bee that seemed to spend an inordinate time at the corner of my carport and back yard, where there were no flowering bushes. This, I learned, was the bee colony’s traffic cop. He was there to guide the other bumble bees who were out gathering nectar to bring back to the hive.

I also encountered a good crop of “mud daubers,” wasps that build mud nests in tiny crevices. They spent the winter inside my outdoor barbeque lid and were friendly enough. I never bothered them—or they me—for like the bees, they helped pollinate the plants. While mowing the grass, I was cautious not to not run over any bees or wasps lingering around the flowering grasses.

When I was younger, I didn’t pay much attention to insects, except for the occasional butterfly fluttering around the yard. Now I enjoy watching them, not just the pretty ones, but the spiders that weave elaborate round geometric designs on the bushes behind the kitchen window, or the caterpillars that will return next season as butterflies. I smack or stomp on any mosquito or roach, but escort any house-bound daddy longlegs or lady bug out the door to freedom. I must confess that I’m a Franciscan.

Why Are Bees Important?

Readers may wonder what all of this has to do with claims adjusting. Actually, the answer would be quite a bit. Sure, insects represent a risk; however, they are also a resource. The apoidea is vital to the nation’s food supply, and not just for the production of honey. Apiarists (bee keepers) travel nationwide with their hives, hired by farmers to pollinate their crops. When large portions of the bees fail to return to the hives, it is a major financial loss. It is called colony collapse disorder, or “CCD,” and is considered by Washington to be a major disaster in the making. This is because bees are needed to pollinate hundreds of crops, from berries and nuts to soybeans and corn.

There have been many theories about what is killing the bees, ranging from microwaves that confuse the bee’s sense of direction to mites or fungus killing them. A definitive cause remains rather elusive, as it is rare to find a deceased bee for examination. Many people are unaware of how important the bee is in our own survival, and some will simply kill a bee rather than help it escape a vehicle or another place where its presence is burdensome.

For all the value they deliver, bees and other insects are also a hazard. While a bee sting can assist in the relief of certain arthritic diseases, others may cause a deadly allergic reaction. While a wasp or a hornet can sting and move on, if a bee stings someone or something, it pulls itself apart because of the barb on its stinger, and thus dies. The infestation of “killer bees” from Mexico into the southwest can also pose a danger, as they fly in clouds of bees and can attack a human or another animal, aggressively stinging them to death.

Government Attention

“The devastation of American honeybee colonies is the result of a complex stew of factors, including pesticides, parasites, poor nutrition, and a lack of genetic diversity, according to a comprehensive federal study published [May 2, 2013],” reported John M. Broder in the New York Times.

“Since 2006, millions of bees have been dying in a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder,” Broder wrote. “The cause or causes have been the subject of much study and speculation.

“Officials in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and others involved in the bee study said there was not enough evidence to support a ban on one group of pesticides [neonicotinoids, which are derived from nicotine], and the costs of such action might exceed the benefits,” he continues. “In April, however, European governmental agencies did ban neonicotinoids.”

Broder surmises the EPA is waiting to “let science drive the outcome of the decision making.” Let’s hope they don’t wait too long. One bee scientist is May R. Berenbaum, head of entomology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who found that examination of dead bees—the few found—showed residues of more than 100 chemicals, insecticides and pesticides, including some used to control parasites in beehives. One of the most fatal afflictions in bee colonies is the parasitic mite Varroa destructor. Another cause is the planting of vast areas of a single crop such as corn, which thereby limits the forage supplies for bees.

Locust Infestations Are Also Disastrous

While I’ve never encountered a “bee claim,” I have investigated accidents where the driver was distracted by a bee or a wasp and a wreck ensued. Another potential catastrophe is an invasion of locusts. The occasional grasshopper is no problem, but when massive swarms of locusts descend upon a crop, eating the leaves, stems and grain—or other fruit of the plant—an entire farm can be devastated. It is a peril that crop insurers must take into consideration, and such invasions are not altogether uncommon. This year, we are supposed to see the return of the 17-year cicada, but it seems their worst foul is incessant noisemaking.

Locust invasions of historic proportion have occurred throughout history. One of the ten plagues of Egypt described in the Old Testament was a plague of locusts that destroyed the wheat crop. Drought, as in the Joseph stories, was not the only threat to grain, and ancient civilizations had little in the way of insecticide to prevent insect infestations. Caterpillar migrations can devastate a forest, and tree disease can wipe out entire species of trees or plants, such as the Dutch Elm disease of the 1940s or boring insects that can ruin a pine forest, a major crop in many areas of the country. Also, let us not forget that lovely little pest known as the California fruit fly.

The Need for Crop Insurance

Urban dwellers probably do not consider the hazards of farming until there has been a drought or insect infestation that causes food prices to rise, which may well occur if bees continue to decline. In today’s global marketplace, animal diseases and insect invasions can cross borders without checking in at the immigration office or customs; they are immune from any laws passed against them. When I donate blood, the technician asks if I’ve spent time in certain nations—6 months or longer in Britain or even just a brief visit to Africa or Haiti. Britain could pose a concern because of Mad Cow Disease and the other nations are associated with the AIDS pandemic.

My brother, when he was still alive and living in Colorado, sold crop insurance. He provided customers with aerial photographs of their land as a bonus. One may not think of Colorado as a major agricultural state, but its eastern and central parts are much like the Midwest, and its southeastern corner was one of the central parts of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, largely because of farming methods that left the topsoil loose and free to blow away. Northeast of Denver is sugar beet country, one of the major crops of the state.

There are both federal and commercial crop insurance programs, and farmers are well aware of the perils that can trigger a major loss. A few plans even include coverage for declining market price, but this is a financial guarantee that many insurers will not underwrite. The problem with the bee colony collapse is that while bee keeping is a major agricultural industry, we don’t really know how much an individual bee worth. How does one calculate a loss where there is no specific “premises location,” other than the wooden hive with its screens inside—the bees fly away and simply don’t return? The bee keeper then moves on to the next customer with fewer bees. Both the farmers and the bee keepers incur a loss, but how can it be defined or calculated? Nevertheless, bee keepers need some form of agricultural livestock insurance.

Let’s Consider Subrogation

Handling a livestock or crop claim is much like handling any other sort of insurance claim. Evaluation and negotiation of the damages is the last part of the adjustment: First, the adjuster must determine the exact type and cause of loss and find out if that was within the intended purpose of the policy language. Investigation of liability may seem an unusual requirement, but it does need consideration. Did the crop disease or insect infestation spread from a neighboring property because that neighbor failed to control the disease or infestation and allowed it to spread? Did the livestock die because of some chemical or pesticide that ought to not be on the market? Neonicotinoids are, after all, an effective pesticide as they are applied to the seed, not the growing plant, and ward off insects. It might pose a tricky legal question, but ­failure to seek any potential for subrogation is a mistake.

For example, if a rancher depends of a creek for water for his herd and a neighbor higher up the creek dams it, cutting off the water supply and part of the herd dies creating an insurance claim, subrogation is the better way to respond rather than the old-fashioned gunfight that often accompanied range wars of the past. The “six-shooter” is certainly not standard-issue equipment for the claims adjuster. Today’s adjuster needs a good scientific and investigative mind.