Jan 8 (Reuters) - The United States said it will fund more
than $450,000 in research projects to reduce the use of
pesticides that may harm honey bees, crucial in the pollination
of many key U.S. crops.

A total of $459,264 will be divided among Louisiana State
University, Penn State University and the University of Vermont
to develop practices that reduce the use of potentially harmful
pesticides, the Environmental Protection Agency said in a
statement Wednesday.

Over the past few years, bee populations have been dying at
a rate the U.S. government says is unsustainable. Honey bees
pollinate plants that produce about a quarter of the food
consumed by Americans, including apples, almonds, watermelons
and beans, according to government reports.

Scientists, consumer groups and bee keepers say the
devastating rate of bee deaths is due to the growing use of
pesticides, sold by agrichemical companies to boost yields of
staple crops such as corn.

However, Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer
and other agrichemical companies say the bees are
being killed by other factors, such as mites.

The Louisiana State University project is focused on
minimizing the impact to bees from insecticides used for
mosquito control.

The University of Vermont project focuses on reducing
pesticide use and improving pest control while increasing crop
yields on 75 acres of hops in the Northeast. The project's goal
is to reduce herbicide and fungicide applications by 50 percent
while decreasing downy mildew, a plant disease.

And the Pennsylvania State University project is exploring
the benefits of growing crops without relying on neonicotinoid
pesticide seed treatments. The so-called 'neonics' are a chief
suspect in honey bee deaths.

"Protection of bee populations is among EPA's top
priorities," the agency said.

The EPA said bee populations were also being hurt by
parasites, disease and poor nutrition.

The agency has been working with bee keepers, growers,
pesticide manufacturers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and
states to try to combat pesticide exposure to bees.