Flight of the honeybees’ commercial keepers

Paul Driessen Senior Policy Advisor, Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow
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Part I: Professional pollinators proceed to California, to service almond crops

Record-breaking snow and low temperatures this winter have Americans dreaming of spring. Farmers and beekeepers share those reveries and note that warmer weather hearkens the arrival of their busy season.

One of the earliest crops, almonds, is simultaneously the most important one for commercial beekeepers. Almonds depend on bees for pollination, and yet explosive growth of this bumper crop is taxing the very creatures the industry needs to thrive.

California’s Central Valley produces over 80 percent of the world’s almonds. Every year, this profitable crop consistently ranks among the top three most valuable commodities in the Golden State’s considerable agriculture industry.

Almonds were worth over $4 billion in 2012, and this boom is poised to continue, despite the drought and other problems. New food products and the expansion of overseas markets have increased demand to the point that no young almond trees are available for purchase until 2016.

Of course, demand for almonds translates into demand for pollination. Enter the commercial beekeeper. Every spring, sixty percent of all honeybees in the United States are transported to the almond groves to pollinate the crop.

For beekeepers providing pollination services, almonds are the year’s biggest and first customer of every growing season. Pollinating California almonds in February and March is among beekeeping’s biggest challenges.

A major problem is that bee colonies, especially those from northern states, lack sufficient time to emerge from their heat-conserving winter cluster. To meet this challenge, some beekeepers maintain 20,000 to 30,000 hives. Each one requires careful inspection for devastating diseases and parasites – a meticulous task impractical at such a scale.

Making their task more difficult is the fact that beekeepers are trying to impose large-scale agricultural methods on an animal whose husbandry practices have been virtually unchanged since the nineteenth century. The larger the commercial beekeeper’s stock, the harder it is not only to tend, but to recover from financial setback in the form of lost bees.

Almond growers will need 1.5 million hives this year, estimates Colorado beekeeper Lyle Johnston. He brokers bees for California growers, while also tending hives himself.

“It takes almost all the commercial bees in the United States,” to pollinate the almond crop, Johnston told the Post-Independent, a Glenwood Springs, Colorado newspaper.

Unfortunately, almond demand for bees has led many commercial beekeepers to put their stocks at risk, because the payoff can amount to half an individual keeper’s yearly profit.

As a result, “bees come back from California loaded with mites and every other disease you can think of,” beekeeper Ed Colby explained to the Post-Independent. “But the upside is they pay you money, and it’s good money.”

Risk, mites, and disease often mean bee colony deaths. For the general public, when bees do die, it sounds like a big deal – even if it’s not.

Last year, many headlines decried a thirty percent rate of overwinter bee loss in the United States. Most of those stories missed or glossed over the fact that beekeepers expect a loss of ten to fifteen percent of their hives every year, as a normal cost of doing business.

Last year’s rate was higher than normal, and higher than almost any keeper would want. But it’s certainly not the “bee-pocalypse” the news stories claimed.

Moreover, efforts to identify a single unifying cause for a higher-than-usual rate of loss have failed. Scientists have discovered that multiple issues affect bee health.

Urban, suburban, and agricultural development “has reduced natural habitat, clearing out thousands of acres of clover and natural flowers,” a 2007 “60 Minutes” investigative report observed. “Instead, bees are spending week after week on the road, feeding on a single crop, undernourished and overworked.”

Little has changed in the intervening years. Beekeepers still send their hives to California, where they face mounting challenges.

“One such stressor is the migration itself,” Post-Independent reporter Marilyn Gleason noted. “First, there’s the road trip, which isn’t exactly natural for bees, and may include freezing cold or scorching heat. Bees ship out of Colorado before the coldest weather, and drivers may drench hot, thirsty bees with water at the truck wash.”

Next, the convergence in almond groves of so many commercial bees from all over the country creates a hotbed of viruses and pathogens. Since the late 1980s, the varroa destructor mite has had major impacts on bee colonies. It spreads at least 19 different bee viruses and diseases.

Parasitic phorid flies are another problem, and highly contagious infections also pose significant threats. The intestinal fungus Nosema ceranae, for example, prevents bees from absorbing nutrition, resulting in starvation.

The tobacco ringspot virus was likewise linked recently to the highly publicized problem known as “colony collapse disorder.” CCD occurs when bees in a colony disappear, leaving behind only a queen and a few workers.

The term originally lumped together a variety of such “disappearing” disorders recorded in different locales across hundreds of years. As during past episodes, these unexplained incidents have declined in recent years.

Despite these challenges, translated by media headlines into a “bee-pocalypse,” overall U.S. honeybee populations and the number of managed colonies have held steady for nearly 20 years.

These days, the biggest existential threat to bees is campaigns purporting to save them.