In appealing for government assistance, the bee industry (and bee researchers) emphasize the “billions of dollars” in value that honey bees are worth to agriculture – that without subsidies, bee colony numbers will continue to decline, causing severe economic consequences for the production of many agricultural crops.
Certainly the bee industry is undergoing major problems, most notably from parasitic mites, but the “billions of dollars benefit to agriculture” argument should be abandoned. Here’s why:
Over the past 20 years, CA’s almond acreage has increased to the point where one million bee colonies are now required for February pollination (at the rate of two colonies per acre). Because almonds bloom in February and because bees are released from almond orchards by mid-March, the one million colonies coming out of almond orchards represent a pool of bees that can be transported to any area of the U.S. for crop pollination purposes – provided the growers of such crops are willing to pay for transportation and related costs.
Almond growers pay dearly for their bees – rental fees are up to $50/colony and rising as new acreage goes in. Almond pollinatlon has completely changed the face of the U.S. beekeeping industry – without almond pollination income, many US. beekeepers would be out of business. Indeed, some beekeepers are increasing their colony numbers solely to supply bees for CA’s increasing almond acreage.
In essence, CA’s almond industry is subsidizing the U.S. bee industry to the tune of millions of dollars a year. Any government subsidy would be dwarfed by the infusion of money that the bee industry has already received and continues to receive from the almond industry. By creating and maintaining a viable pool of one million bee colonies – a pool of bees that becomes available to any U.S. ag producer by mid-March – the almond industry is indirectly subsidizing growers of any other crop that requires bees (apple pollination fees in the western U.S. have dropped significantly due to this million-colony pool). With current low almond prices, almond growers could make a much better case for government subsidies than could beekeepers.
As long as beekeepers continue to supply CA’s almond acreage with bees – and there is no indication that they won’t – then there is no justification for concern about the “billions of dollars” worth of value that honey bees supply to other U.S. crops. The “billion-dollar benefit” argument is a horse that died several years ago; beekeepers should dismount before the smell becomes unbearable.
Besides paying top dollar for bee rentals, the almond industry, aware of the importance of a healthy bee industry, has provided nearly a million dollars for bee research over the years. Beekeepers should consider matching almond industry contributions to bee research, perhaps using funds obtained from almond pollination fees.
As for diminished numbers of feral honey bees (due to Varroa) causing problems for backyard and small-plot pollination, there are indications that Varroa-resistant feral colonies are making a comeback. If not, there are alternative methods of pollinating small-acreage crops.
On a related matter, it might also be prudent to retire the slogan, “You can import honey, but you can’t import pollination.” As TX and AZ melon growers look at bee supply in Mexico and as apple and blueberry growers in the northern border states eye bee supply in Canada (and CA almond growers become aware of bee supply in both countries), it is certainly possible pollination will be imported in the future.
Joe Traynor is a crop advisor and pollination broker in Bakersfield, CA.
Honey – Still Backbone
In reference to the guest editorial I’d say Joe Traynor doesn’t get out much. It’s nice to hear that California almonds require one million colonies. At $50 per hive beekeepers must be falling over each other to get in. The fact is honey production is still the back bone of the bee industry. As the price of honey goes down and the cost of production goes up survivalists make changes or go out of business, usually at the expense of the ones that failed. The survivors buy equipment at rock bottom prices and try to put it in production. Hoping the gross income will go up enough to keep his head above water. The pollination industry is not wrapped around the almond farms. There must be thousands of mom and pop operations, sideline fruit, vegetable and seed farmers throughout the country that need and receive honey bee pollination. If It weren’t for the beekeeper re-establishing dead hives and the resulting occasional swarm escaping to repopulate feral hives, there wouldn’t be feral hives.
I’m sure some beekeepers would like to see the borders open. There are areas in Canada that average 250 lbs. in honey production. Oops! Why would a beekeeper think about honey production when all that easy pollination is out there.