The Sustainability of our Honeybees - Part Two

Added by Kent Pegorsch on

Why are the honeybees doing okay?  Almonds.

Almond pollination and the revenue it provides has made beekeeping profitable and allowed beekeepers to invest in their colonies.  I believe that was true and may continue to be true but it is not the whole story.

Other factors that contribute are honey prices and hobbyist interest.  For now, I am going to ignore the complex issue of hobbyist interest and the positive and negative issues surrounding this phenomon.  I will focus on the majority of colonies involved in commercial operations and not on the majority of beekeepers. at this time, I believe that the commercial oppositions are responsible for the sustainability the honeybee.  For the time being they are supplying a majority of the bees to many non-sustainable operations. 

Honey prices have been helpful in providing the capital for investing in the health of but almond pollination is the proverbial "tail wagging the dog" of the beekeeping industry. As I write this, the beekeeping industry is preparing for the largest pollination effort in history.  Over 1,330,000 acres of California almond trees will require over 2,000,000 colonies of bees to do this job.  That is over two thirds of all the managed colonies in the United States.  For a somewhat less than perfect analogy, can you imagine shipping two thirds of all the dairy cows to primarily five counties to work for a couple weeks and then insuring that each cow was returned to their specific owner after the event was completed?  

In order to accomplish this, the almond growers pay almost $200 per colony to entice beekeepers to participate.  I only manage 200 colonies.  Why do I participate?  It is not for the money.  Out of that $200 comes the trucking, management and brokers fees.  Each hive is trucked to a holding yard until the almond growers call for the bees.  Then they are trucked to the orchards.  

After pollination, they must quickly be removed and trucked back to the holding yards.  Then they must be trucked back to Wisconsin.  In the end very little money is left.  I participate because when the honeybee colony are returned to me in Wisconsin at the end of March, they are as strong as they would be at the end of May after wintering in Wisconsin.  Besides the lack of winter kill, I have colonies that I can split to make of any losses and also extras that I can sell to local beekeepers that have lost colonies over winter.  This is sustainability.

Bees returning from almonds are strong and ready for splitting.

There are risks.  Trucking accidents, pesticide kills and stress on the colonies are a concern but these issues can be mitigated.  For now, it is how I keep my operation sustainable.  The future may hold changes.  There are a growing number of beekeepers who are keeping their bees out of almonds and holding the colonies in the South.  By holding the colonies in the South, they reduce their risks and costs and still get a jump on our springtime.  

I have also talked with a large commercial beekeeper who is considering wintering their bees in Wisconsin and trying to be sustainable.  This is a challenge but with experience may be possible.  Without experience, it is, in my opinion, impossible to be sustainable on a consistent basis while wintering in the Northern tier of states.

My next blog will focus on where our replacement bees come from when we experience early losses. 


To read Part One of The Sustainability of our Honeybees Click Here