A beekeeper tends to bee hive boxes in Contra Costa County, Calif.
Bob Rowan, Progressive Image, Corbis
The Lifestyles of Migrant Beekeepers
The bee business is booming these days. With wild bee populations in decline, beekeepers can make more money renting out bees to pollinate food crops than they ever could selling homemade honey.
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The busy bee may be a cliche. But it turns out that bees are very busy on the world's farms, pollinating many of the fruits, vegetables and nuts we eat.
But a major report from the National Academies says bees and other important pollinators are losing out to development and disease. The report's authors warn the losses could have a big impact on some farmers, such as the almond growers of Central California.
Growers there depend on commercial beekeepers to produce their billion-pound nut crop, which is among the state's most valuable agricultural product.
A Beekeeper's Best Friend
Beekeeper Gene Brandi stores some of colonies in large white boxes not far from a sprawling almond orchard near Los Banos.
Last spring, his bees spread pollen from tree to tree in the orchard. Now, giant harvesting machines are moving through the orchard, shaking trees with a crab-like craw and making the nuts spill down to the ground.
Recently, Brandi was getting his hives ready for the winter. He wore a big round hat with mesh that kept the honeybees off his face. To keep the bees calm, he shot puffs of dark gray smoke into the hives, after dropping matches into a beat-up metal box called a smoker. "The smoker is the beekeeper's best friend, other than the bees themselves," he said.
A Farmer's Best Friend
Brandi's been a beekeeper since 1978. In that time, his bees have pollinated not just almond trees, but cranberries, blueberries, cherries, apples, plums, melons, avocados and wide variety of vegetables. According to the new report, beekeepers like Brandi help put the bloom on at least 90 important crops — including about one-third of the fruit, vegetables and nuts found in your local store.
Indeed, many beekeepers ship their bees around the country so that they can be in the right place at the right time for the farmers.
Brandi says it takes a lot of healthy honeybees to do this massive job — like the ones in his colonies.
"Big full bodies, full wings," he says, admiring his bees. "They are gathering nectar, gathering pollen, and that indicates colony health to me. These are basically happy contented bees."
But keeping bees healthy isn't easy, he says. You have to watch out for everything from freakish weather to predators like bears and skunks. Brandi says the skunks come in at night and scratch at the front of the wooden hives.
"And they get the bees to come out, and they will fill their bellies with bees," Brandi says. "They don't want honey they just want bees," he says.
The Varroa Vampire Mite
But Brandi says bears and skunks are nothing compared to a newer threat. It's a tiny Asian mite that sucks the juices out of European honeybees, crippling and then wiping out entire colonies.
Scientists know this mite as the Varroa destructor. Beekeepers call it the vampire mite.
According to the new report, the vampire mite helped wipe out the nation's wild honeybees in the late 1990s. Then it started ravaging commercial colonies. Brandi, who owns 2,000 hives, says his bees got hit hard in the winter of 2004. He remembers pulling the lids of boxes and hearing silence.
"I ended up with a 30 percent loss," he says, one of his biggest ever.
It is hard to understate the damage these mites are doing to the nation's most important pollinators. Researchers say they have helped reduce bee numbers by nearly 30 percent over the last 25 years.
As a result, even as almond farmers and others need more pollinators, there are far fewer European bees to go around. And some experts, like Eric Mussen of the University of California, Davis, worry that the vampire mites could be everywhere again this winter.
"This year is another one of those years where the bees are not particularly strong and healthy," Mussen says.
"Unfortunately, I am afraid that we are looking forward to another winter of significant winter losses and fewer bees next spring."
Mussen says he worries that the mite attacks will help put a lot of beekeepers out of business. That could further accelerate a long-term decline in the number of commercial beekeepers. These are jobs people have to want to do, he says.
"You get up before dawn and work until long after dark, and then you get up and do it again the next day," Mussen says.
Experts say it's possible that other bee species could take the place of some of these commercial bees. Robbin Thorp, an emeritus professor at UC Davis, has been studying and collecting native bees for more than 40 years now. He shows off several thousand specimens lined up in the long glass drawers inside a compact museum at the university.
Thorp turns a crank that opens up a row, and finds one kind of bee that could be helpful.
"That's Bob," Thorp says. "The blue orchard bee. It's being used to pollinate apples and cherries."
Damaging Farm Practices
There are other wild bees that could pollinate crops, he says. Unfortunately, many of these kinds of bees may also be in decline, according to the new report. And, ironically, the farms that need bees the most are a big part of problem. Giant weed-free farms that destroy habitat and use a lot of pesticides are the worst offenders, Thorp says, and have helped drive some bees to edge of extinction.
There are solutions to these problems. For instance, efforts to restore habitat that might support wild bees are now underway. And researchers also are looking for ways to kill the mites.
The question now is whether those new programs will pay off in time to help avert a looming pollination crisis. It's a crisis that might begin with the news that there are not enough commercial bees to pollinate California's ever bigger almond orchards.
A symbol of this potential crisis now passes by the UC Davis campus every fall, when large numbers of commercial honeybees migrate into California for the mild winters. The trick is that these bees don't fly west on their own wings, but travel inside the wooden boxes piled up in tractor-trailers rumbling down the interstate freeways.
Unofficially it's the biggest insect migration in the country.
While California beekeeper Orin Johnson prepares his bees for the coming almond season, hundreds of trucks loaded with beehives are bearing down on his state. They are all headed for the almonds. It’s a caravan that people in the bee business join every year, chasing the blooms and the dollars.
Johnson is a commercial beekeeper in California’s Central Valley. When the almond trees start blooming, his bees will join millions of others shipped from across the nation in a kind of gigantic bee homecoming dance. Growers rent the bees to pollinate almond flowers so the trees will bear nuts.
"Commercial beekeeping can be very lucrative," says Johnson, who is also vice president of the California State Beekeepers Association. Farmers in the United States pay about $150 million a year to rent hives, and demand is growing.
But before you buy your moonsuit and smoker, beekeeping for profit is not a lifestyle for everyone. Johnson says many newbies have a hard time finding enough land to park their hives on — landowners are often too scared of being stung to rent plots.
Plus, bees and their keepers often have to live as migrant workers. Johnson lives close to farms that need his bees’ services, but beekeepers in the rest of the country pack beehives onto big trucks each year and chasing one blossoming crop after another.
This time of year, beekeepers are gearing up for the almond season opening on Feb. 1. They're packing hives onto pallets and scraping off mud that could hide fire ants or other pests that would cause California border inspectors to turn back the bees.
"When you've spent $5,000 to ship a truckload of bees, the last thing you want is for them to get rejected," Johnson says.
Winging across the country in an 18-wheeler takes its toll on the bees, so keepers look for trucks with gentle air-ride suspension and truckers willing to hose down the hives during pit stops. Once at the farms, the bees typically wait, partially dormant in the cool weather, for their owners to catch up with them in January.
Around the New Year, keepers flock to California and prepare their waiting hives for the season. Motel rooms fill up, and supply trailers line parking lots. The bees need careful tending at this point and plenty of sweet syrup to get their weight up.
More than a million hives will pour in to the almond orchards. The almond industry is booming, and growers expect they'll need closer to 2 million hives to pollinate all the new trees that will start bearing nuts by 2010. That means 80 percent of the approximately 2.3 million commercial bee colonies that exist now in the United States will have to travel to the California orchards just to meet demand.
The going rate for hives this year ran about $125 to $150 per hive for six weeks. Johnson says speculation about next year's prices ran wild at a recent conference — some said it could hit $200 — but the truth is that no one, including Johnson, really knows how many bees will be ready to fill demand until hives are cracked open in January.
The beekeepers go home for a month-long break while their bees work in the orchards, then head back to California, pack up the bees, and move on to the next location, such as the cherry orchards in California's San Joaquin Valley or apple orchards in Washington. Then, many head back home with their bees to places like the Dakotas or Montana — where land is cheaper — for an intense summer of honey-making during clover season.
Like wild bees, these commercially raised bees are in danger. Farmed honeybee stocks in the United States have declined by 39 percent since the arrival of exotic mites in the 1980s, according to the new report from the National Academies.
Johnson says most keepers are losing 30 to 40 percent of their hives each year to mites and starvation.
"If a cattle rancher lost 30 to 40 percent of their herd each year, they'd go out of business," he says.