Silent Sting: Plight of the Pollinators

Spraying poison on almonds

In the middle of an almond orchard, a tractor sprays the trees in bloom RIGHT NEXT to the honeybee hives. Of course, it must be lemonade they are spraying, right? They would never spray insecticide or fungicide right next to the hives, right? As far as honeybees are concerned, what happens in Southern California early in the calendar year sets the stage for the rest of the season’s crop pollination and honey production, which will last until about November, give or take a few weeks for latitude. For this reason, what’s happening in the almond orchards right now is of vital importance to the nation’s beekeepers—whether they know it or not. The big operation pollination services are keenly aware of the situation. However, the same can’t be said of the hobbyist beekeeper, who may just be thinking, “I’m so glad I have my bees ordered, and they’ll be here near the end of April or early in May.” But hobbyists may not realize what’s happening in the background to make that delivery possible.

It takes approximately 1.5 million honeybee colonies to efficiently and effectively pollinate almonds in the few short weeks they have to bloom. The total number of bees from colonies producing honey in 2012 amounted to 2.62 million. (This number is based on information from beekeepers who manage five or more colonies.) That means we need about 57 percent of all the bees in the U.S. to congregate in Southern California for the almond bloom in February. But even that may not be enough, as we’ll see. For years beekeepers have been warning us of the day when there will no longer be enough honeybees to pollinate the almonds, not to mention the other crops that follow. And this shortage will have a trickle down effect all the way down to the hobbyist.

The cycle of honeybees through the beekeeping community works something like this: After the almond pollination, large numbers of colonies are shipped to Northern California, where they’re “shaken” into big containers and measured out into approximately three-pound packages. Similar rituals are performed in Texas, Georgia, Florida, and other states with large-package sellers. The bees are then combined with a caged queen from a queen producer, usually located nearby. These packages will end up with hobby beekeepers throughout the country, shipped sometimes in small quantities and sometimes in huge truckloads for organized cooperatives like beekeeping clubs.

Each year, I anxiously await news from Southern California so I can keep my students informed about package availability and prices. Each year, the prices rise while the number of available packages decrease. Vendors start posting their “sold out” notices sooner and sooner.

When will the shortage of honeybees really be felt by the average citizen? We can’t know for sure, but here’s some behind-the-scenes insight about the unusual circumstances that saved the almonds from the shortage for the past two years:

In 2013, the industry was concerned there might not be enough bees to handle almond pollination. The EPA Pesticide Program Dialog Committee (PPDC) estimated the shortfall would be 300,000 shy of the 1.6 million needed. (Author personally attended EPA PPDC presentation at meeting of 2/21/2013.) But that year Mother Nature delivered an exceptionally beautiful weather pattern to the almond orchards for the entire bloom period, which allowed the bees to pollinate almost constantly. This unusual weather pattern made a full almond crop possible despite the honeybee shortage. With the extra time granted by the weather, fewer bees were able to do more work. Bullet dodged. No “Almond Crop Failure” headlines. But beekeepers knew the underlying problem was still there—bees were in short supply.

In 2014, the shortage of honeybees is once again a concern. But this time the drought came to the rescue. Sounds really weird, doesn’t it? The California drought was good?! It was, as far as the honeybees are concerned. Why? In mid-January, the West Side Water District announced a zero water allotment. Farmers all over California’s San Joaquin Valley were forced to not farm their land. Worried about almond trees dying from the stress of producing nuts, 90,000 acres of almond orchards were intentionally left unfertilized. This freed up approximately 180,000 honeybee hives. Now, we’re all thinking that would reduce the per-hive cost for pollination. And for some, it did. With the confusion over water, the price dropped as low as $130 per hive. But some almond producers were able to purchase water from vegetable farmers who chose to let their fields go fallow. Those orchards were quick to gobble up the “extra” honeybees, which in many cases still demanded a premium price of $200 per hive. Those orchards needing the service found the hive numbers necessary—this time! (Personal correspondence 3/1/2014 with Jeff Anderson, Darren Cox, and Dave Hackenberg, all commercial beekeepers on the ground in California almond orchards.)

Commercial beekeeper Jeff Anderson estimates that even with the drought, 1.5 million is about right for the number of colonies it will take to pollinate this year’s almonds. But he points out that another half million hives will be needed for minor crops that compete during the almond bloom, which means the total number of hives needed at this time of year could be as high as 2 million. On the other side of the equation, the 2.62 million available hives is a warm-weather number; the high-water mark for the year. If we factor in a 30 percent loss (typical of winter), but ignore an estimated (according to Jeff Anderson) 20 percent summer loss, then the number of hives available for service drops down to about 1.8 million (2.62 million minus30 percent).

To sum everything up, we need 2 million hives, but have only 1.8 million. There’s no margin for error anymore. My friend Bill got a notice on March 6 that the honeybee packages he ordered from Texas won’t be delivered. His money was returned without explanation. (Personal correspondence 3/6/2014 with Bill Koeppen, hobby beekeeper.) That’s right—he thought he was all set for the year with bees on the way. Instead, he got nothing. And he’s not alone.

Honeybees are expensive but still somewhat available. Just to give you an idea of how confusing this all was during the almond run, at one point Darren Cox had 2,000 hives that were not rented. Supposedly they weren’t needed, but before it was all done, every hive got scooped up. Darren said that had weather been “normal,” there “would have been major shortages of good hives.”

Thanks to our (now frequently) bizarre weather, that’s two years in a row we managed to avoid the headline: “Not Enough Honeybees to Pollinate Almonds.” But the day is coming when the scarcity of pollinators will cause significant crop shortages. Will it be the almonds, the apples, the blueberries, or the cranberries? Or will it be one of the many lesser-known crops that need insect pollination to produce? Will we continue to enjoy the diversity of food that’s so readily available to us today? It seems unlikely. Hard choices will have to be made—what crops will get honeybees and what crops won’t? They’re getting scarce, and that’s far from the only problem. This article hasn’t even touched on the dwindling strength of the colonies that do pollinate almonds, or addressed the planting of additional acres that far outpaces the removal of past-prime trees.

What can you do to help? Support your local beekeepers, especially the hobbyists. In the years to come, that’s how your garden will get pollinated. Yes, I want you to buy their honey. But consider doing even more, such as making a contribution. Such a gesture may be appropriate at this point. No, beekeepers are not a 501(c) group. And no, you won’t be able to write it off on your taxes. But remember that those beekeepers have years of toil and equipment tied up in their efforts to keep the bees alive. They don’t expect to be honored with a recognition of their unselfish effort, and would be stunned with amazement and gratitude. Keeping bees alive is a very “out of sight” task, and inherently out of mind, but remember how much we all need beekeepers to get the job done.

Photo by Kyle Anderson

Don Studinski

Don Studinski, dba Honeybee Keep, is a permaculture enthusiast and member of the board of directors at Living Systems Institute (LSI) where he applies permaculture philosophy to beekeeping. Honeybee Keep manages Colorado’s first Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) apiaries: LSI in Golden and Cottonwood Farm in Boulder. As a beekeeping mentor, Don provides advice and counsel for students throughout the United States, teaches classes and performs public speaking events. He authored Beekeeping Mentor in a Book and writes extensively about beekeeping on his own website and for a variety of others, including Bee Culture magazine, Peak Prosperity and Honeybee Haven.

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