Pollination is basic science, but the cost of it is getting more complicated.
Rising honey prices, invasive mites and higher diesel fuel costs have increased the price of services performed by commercial beekeepers during the past 20 years, says a new study from N.C. State University.
The potential fallout? Higher prices at the market for foods that involve pollination, and that’s a lot of them: The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 75 percent of food crops grown worldwide depend on animal pollination, though it doesn’t say what percentage of that pollination is done by bees.
“The economics of the story has to do with the fact that the economic incentives (for beekeepers) come from the monetary payment from farmers for the pollination services, as well as the honey that they take away with them,” said N.C. State agricultural and resource economist Walter Thurman, the study’s lead researcher. He said it’s the first comprehensive study of North American pollination markets.
“One direct implication of that is that bees pollinate a bunch of different crops, and the pollination fee beekeepers receive is lower for crops that are good honey crops than (for) crops that are bad honey crops.”
Crops such as clover and blueberries can be pollinated while also allowing bees to build supplies of honey. These are known as “honey crops. “Non-honey crops,” such as apples and pears, generally aren’t associated with much honey production for bees.
The new study was announced shortly after an August report that doesn’t bode well for short-term honey prices. S. Kamberg Co., an industrial ingredient food broker covering the East Coast, said that a hot summer throughout most of the U.S. has 2012 honey crop projections only slightly better than last year’s poor showing. With virtually no carryover honey from 2011’s 148 million-pound crop, the country’s raw honey prices are rising.
Mites and disease
Thurman cited Colony Collapse Disorder – a disease that has impaired bee health throughout the U.S. for the past five years – as an ongoing concern.
“It’s little understood and has a lot of people worried about the future of the honeybee,” he said, though he feels it will have a minimal effect on the market for beekeepers.
CCD has raised the rate of over-winter mortality among bees from about 15 percent to 30 percent.
“That’s big, but it’s not catastrophic, Thurman said. “What we look for is evidence that it’s affecting prices of pollination services, prices of honey, even the number of colonies. And we find that there’s no discernible effect.”
“If beekeepers face a higher over-winter mortality rate, they can either preemptively or after the fact replace them. ... They can introduce new queens; they can split old colonies and grow them into new, healthy colonies.”
Nonetheless, Thurman theorized that CCD may be linked to the late-1980s arrival and spread of the Varroa mite, a nonnative parasite that lives on the abdomen of bees and can devastate a colony.
“It means that a beekeeper used to be able to keep a hive and refresh the hive with a new queen every three or four years and keep the same hive alive over time, but now a hive you maintain like that sustains a really high mite load.
“It’s a big deal that has permanently raised the cost of beekeeping and made it a more difficult enterprise. ... It also probably has something to do with this more recent CCD. It might be the interaction of colonies that are weakened by the Varroa mites, in conjunction with viruses and maybe even other parasites.”
Money and almonds
Beekeepers generally charge by the hive for one pollination set, Thurman said. For example, “a beekeeper will contract with an almond grower and say, ‘I’m going to deliver to your farm 200 colonies of bees,’ and they agree on a price. If the price is $150, that means the farmer is going to pay the beekeeper $150 per hive for the 10 days or two weeks that the almond trees are in bloom and the bees are doing their work.”
Another method, used less often, is for the farmer to measure the strength of the hive by how many frames of healthy bees lie in it. (The inside of a hive has vertical frames.) Some growers will contract by frame, “which is more like paying them per bee than per hive or box of bees,” Thurman said.
The cost for bee rentals depends on the crop.
“Fees have gone up quite dramatically for almonds over the past four or five years. Not so for other crops,” Thurman said.
“Almonds require pollination very early – late February to early March. It’s a critical time for almond growers. Almond growers are dependent on bees like no other crop.”
Thurman said the going rate is about $150 per hive for a 10-day period of putting the hive in the almond orchards to pollinate. Later in the season, the same bee colony might be pollinating apples for $60 to $70.
Almond acreage has increased dramatically in the U.S. – which is the world’s dominant exporter of almonds, Thurman said.
“So as more and more almond acres require pollination, farmers have to induce beekeepers to bring their bees from farther and farther away. Right now there are North Carolina beekeepers who take their bees all the way to California just to pollinate almonds in February, and then they truck the bees back.
“That’s what the big run-up in fees does for you: It attracts beekeepers from all over the United States. The North Carolina beekeeper is not willing to truck his bees out there for $75, but apparently he is for $150.”
And as diesel fuel prices rise, beekeepers traveling long distances build that into their fees.
One more factor that makes almond pollination pricey:
“Almonds are lousy honey crops,” Thurman said. “Bees produce very little honey while they’re pollinating almonds, and the honey they do produce is bitter and humans don’t like it so much. Unlike other crops, they’re not producing economically valuable honey.”
Thurman gave an example of how a commercial North Carolina beekeeper might operate.
“They put about 400 to 450 hives of bees on a semi trailer and … drive out to California (for almond pollination). They drive at night because bees don’t fly during the evening. They also cover them hives with tarps. ...
“Each of these hives will contain maybe 30,000 to 45,000 bees – all worker bees except for one queen – and they unload them with forklifts and put them out in the middle of the almond orchards. They’re there for about 10 days to two weeks, depending on the weather and when the blooms are actually on the tree and how long they stay there. At the end of it, they reverse the process – back in the forklifts, back in the trucks.”
He said the bees don’t have to be coaxed back onto the trucks: “Hives are wooden boxes. That’s the center of their universe. They’re always coming back to raise young ones and instruct other bees in the hive as to where the nectar sources are, and where they can find good pollen.
“Bees seek nectar because it’s sugar and calories, and they seek pollen because it’s protein, which helps them raise a new brood. So they’re always coming back to the colony – and at night, they stay there.”
Added Richard Flanagan, a hobbyist beekeeper in Charlotte: “Bees are pretty smart creatures. Their brain is smaller than a grain of rice, and yet they can navigate through wind, and even on cloudy days figure out how to get back home.”
The North Carolina factor
Thurman noted that the N.C. State Beekeepers Association is the largest such group in the country, with most members resident beekeepers who have fewer than 50 colonies. But according to Flanagan, a member of the Mecklenburg Beekeepers Association, “commercial beekeepers are few and far between, and they’re dwindling as we speak. Commercial keepers usually have 100 hives or more.”
This scarcity is attributed to the growing and built-in challenges of the profession.
“Two things I learned about beekeeping that a beekeeper told me years ago,” Flanagan said. “You’ll never get rich, and you’ll never have a good back. There’s a lot of heavy, manual labor.”
Nonetheless, Thurman said, “there’s a lot of local pollination going for vegetables and fruits like watermelon where North Carolina beekeepers provide important pollination services for those crops. ... And of course, honey is an important product of the North Carolina bee industry.”
He said most of the commercial pollination in the state occurs in the east, spawning melons, cucumbers, strawberries and blueberries.