In 2017 it’s likely more growers have become more dependent on the success of the nation’s beekeeping industry than ever. Today, loss of habitat, a plethora of diseases not prevalent in the past, new kinds of bee predators and economic realities have conspired to create potential pollinator shortages throughout the United States; these are shortages serious enough some believe the food security of the nation could be threatened.

How beekeepers and growers respond to the threats their bees face now and in the future may impact the face of American agriculture for decades to come. According to the National Honey Board, about 125,000 beekeepers maintain colonies in the United States with the “vast majority” of those beekeepers being “hobbyists” keeping less than 25 hives. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data indicates just 2,000 commercial beekeepers (300 or more colonies) are in operation today.

In Skagit County, Washington, in the Cascade foothills about 80 miles north of Seattle, Seth Smith and Bruce Bowen are two of those commercial beekeepers the nation depends on for pollination services as well as for honey and other bee-based products. Smith and Bowen have a loose employee/partnership relationship; Smith works for Bowen as an employee and owns several hundred colonies of his own.

“Bruce has been in the business for most of 40 years and knows more about bees than anyone I know,” Smith said. “Bruce sometimes calls his business ‘A hobby gone wrong,’ and sometimes I understand exactly what he means. I started what was also supposed to be just a hobby with two hives in 2008. Those two quickly became 10 hives then I went to work for Bruce. Somehow we eventually ended up with about 2,000 colonies between us.”

Pollinators under attack

According to Smith, the current president of the Skagit Valley Beekeepers Association, the business of beekeeping is strikingly different in 2017 than it was 40 years ago when Bowen began tending hives. The work of a beekeeper is more intense and requires a broader range of skills and knowledge than it used to because the world has become a very dangerous place for bees in recent decades. Smith points to his own operation as an example.

“We used to send about 1,200 hives to the California almond orchards,” he said. “Last year we had bad foraging weather when the bees really needed to be out making honey. On top of the bad weather we were hit badly by mites. As a result, this year Bruce is sending only about 300 colonies and I’ll be sending about 160. That represents a huge hit in our income for the year. It’s tough to make a living when that happens.” The balance of the two men’s colonies either did not survive the winter or was too weakened to be useful in California.

The mites Smith refers to are a honeybee-specific parasite, the varroa destructor, that made its way to the United States from overseas in the late 1980s. The destructor label is apt; the mite penetrates the bee’s outer body and sucks the bee’s blood. Bees that aren’t directly killed are left vulnerable to disease. The mite has been a suspect in at least having a hand in colony collapse disorder and is directly implicated in the death and destruction of billions of bees and tens of thousands of hives nationwide. According to the Bee Informed Partnership, a research organization funded by the USDA and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, hive losses in the United States exceeded 40 percent in 2015 and 2016 with winter losses well above what might have been expected historically.

California almonds drive business

The number of colonies sent to California is important for beekeepers and for California’s almond growers. For most commercial beekeepers the year revolves around February when California’s 800,000-plus acres of almonds begin to bloom. Almond trees must be insect pollinated so, each year, according to a 2014 report on the U.S. beekeeping industry published by Montesano, about 1.6 million of the nation’s 2.6 million honeybee colonies are put to work pollinating almond orchards; trucks bearing bees arrive from Florida, the Northeast and from nearly everywhere else in the nation.

To the almond growers a lack of bees can mean a stunted crop. To beekeepers, the California almond season is vital because hives rent out for 500 to 600 percent more than they can be rented for nearly any other crop for the rest of the year; a significant part of the entire year’s total income for a beekeeper comes when the California almond trees bloom.

As important as the California season is to his income, Smith said the need for bees in California represents good and bad news for commercial beekeepers. Hive rental rates several times higher than rental rates for other crops needing pollination for the bulk of the year are great, he said but that opportunity comes with a downside; bees are subjected to a lot of stress in California.

“Almonds don’t have much nectar so the bees have to be sent to California with enough nourishment to get them through the season,” he said. “They don’t make honey pollinating the almond orchards so they either have to have enough nourishment to take them through the season or they have to be fed and that means additional cost.”

“Also, while the bees are in California, they are out of our hands, (and) we can’t take care of them the way we’d like to,” Smith said. “They are exposed to other bees so the healthy colony we sent down can come back infested with mites and other bee predators or they may have been exposed to insecticides and have died. The travel itself is stressful and, on top of all that, a lot of hive theft takes place so it’s possible we’ll never see some of our hives again.”

A bee’s life post-almond bloom varies depending on the focus of the beekeeper. Many, if not most, of the larger commercial operations “follow the bloom” after the almonds are done so by the end of the pollination season a colony may have been transported to several locations separated by hundreds or even thousands of miles. “They go from almonds to fruits trees or, in our area, blueberries and then raspberries, wherever there is a need for commercial pollination,” Smith said.” Some beekeepers bring hives home and rent them out to growers in the local area.

In past years Smith has chosen to concentrate on honey production rather than following the bloom but even that path, he said, may be closed to him this year. “I’ve got about 300 hives alive up here,” he said. “I’m going to deemphasize the honey and work on allowing those colonies to grow without pressure. Once a hive is healthy it is necessary to split the colony into two hives to prevent swarming. By winter we should have been able to build our inventory back up with several hundred healthy colonies ready to go again next year.”

The pollination team

Growers, Smith said, can play an important role in maintaining the bee health so necessary to healthy populations of bees ready and able to pollinate; don’t forget, no bees, no crop.

Bees thrive on diversity, Smith said, suggesting that growers look at diversity in their choice of crops. “Tens of thousands of contiguous acres all planted in a single crop are not welcoming to bees,” he said. “There might be plenty of forage while that single crop is blooming but what happens next? To the bees it’s like a desert with nothing to eat or drink. You will attract more bees and produce better crops if you provide for some diversity. When one crop stops blooming, another comes on with a bloom. It’s better for the bees and it’s better for the grower.”

Even a simple step, Smith said, can have a significantly positive impact on bee populations and health. “Let your dandelions bloom as long as you can,” he said. “They provide everything a bee needs so as long as they aren’t hurting your crop let the bees enjoy them.”

Growers also need to do everything possible to work with their chemical company, beekeepers and local Extension experts to safely use insecticides, fungicides and other “cides.” The California Almond Board publication, Honeybee Best Management Practices for California Almonds provides extensive advice regarding how to coexist with the honeybee without which there would be no large-scale almond industry.

The best practices outlined in the Almond Board document translate to nearly any crop as it stresses communication between beekeepers, Extension experts and growers at every stage of the pollination process, careful use of chemicals when necessary, and, whenever possible, providing alternative foraging opportunities as the almond bloom draws to a close.

Pollinators help those who help themselves

Growers can also do themselves a favor in protecting and or enhancing profitability of future crops by providing habitat and other amenities for home-grown pollinators, especially alternative pollinators like bumblebees sweat bees and even hummingbirds. Providing for pollinators can be done with little or no extra effort but to great effect. Managing land for alternative pollinators also means the bees you depend on for major pollination can thrive and leave your farm alive and well, ready to come back next year.

Two publications available online from the USDA-supported Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) organization, “Cover Cropping for Pollinators and Beneficial Insects” and “Managing Alternative Pollinators” are well worth a grower’s time as each publication discusses ways to enhance on-farm pollination efforts.

For the vast majority of especially fruit and vegetable growers in the United States, healthy bees and other pollinators are as fundamental to success as soil management, pest management and other management needs. The grower looking toward a successful future will certainly begin to consider the beekeeper to be one of the most important “employees” he or she has never met.