Beekeepers face a complex future

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Articles - October 2010
Monday, September 27, 2010
Managed honeybees are under stress from mites, bad weather, loss of habitat and other factors. Keeping them healthy is expensive and time-intensive.

Thirty-five years ago it cost him $35 to $40 to run a hive of bees. Hansen says it’s now $250-$300 per colony per year to keep them healthy through good nutrition, medicine and other inputs. He also changes the 50 combs in each of his 5,000 hives every five years because of pesticide buildup. He also has 10 full-time workers, with full benefits. All of this costs a “fortune,” but it is Hansen’s formula for success.

It also means that beekeeping isn’t highly profitable.

“Pollination rentals do not fully pay the bills, though prices have been rising, and honey profits are thin,” says Dewey Caron, an entomologist from the University of Delaware who has researched bees for more than 40 years and has written on the economics of beekeeping. He recently retired to the Portland area and is working gratis with OSU’s Sagili.

“The ‘good years’ are only every five to 10 years,” Caron says. “Loans are hard to get. Hives aren’t standard collateral. Often it is a family operation.” OSU’s Burgett estimates that the amount spent by growers on pollination services is about 2.3% of the total crop value. He says honeybee colony rental was for many decades an underpaid service to the ag industry and that only within the past decade have rental fees begun to reflect the enormous value-added service of managed pollination.

Burgett estimates it costs an average of $173 to run a hive, and the average pollination income is $164 per hive. Profits come from honey and other sales, such as beeswax and surplus bees. Beekeepers last year made between $125-$155 per hive for California almond pollination. Hansen says it’s the largest paycheck, “but it is the most difficult to cash in on. Bees are not at their largest or most productive [during almond season]. They should be hibernating then. And yet, we get paid to trick our bees into being opposite of what they would naturally be. And that’s not easy.”

Putting bees into situations that are not optimal for their health is what allows beekeepers to make more money renting hives to pollinate crops such as carrot seeds, which do not offer much nutrition to the bee. Central Oregon Seeds in Madras spends $750,000 annually to rent the hives needed to pollinate its hybrid carrot seeds. Managing partner Mike Weber knows all the beekeepers in the state and how they do their business.

Weber and other growers had pushed for years to get the OSU bee researcher replaced after Burgett retired; when CCD came along, it finally became a priority and got funded. Weber puts in $20,000 a year to help fund research; many growers and associated groups also donate. He, too, is not overly worried about bee health. “Our beekeeping group is taking care,” he says.

In Oregon, prices range from $25 per hive to pollinate blueberries to $72 per hive for carrot seed pollination. Weber pays that higher price gladly. “I’m very open with the beekeepers. I will flat out tell them, ‘We need you, we can’t do without you.’ Normally you never tell somebody those kinds of things in negotiations. If we can’t get the bees, there’s no need to grow the crop. You need to keep the beekeeper in high regard, and pay them fairly. The growers recognize that a healthy beekeeper means we will stay in business.”

Staying in business is also of great concern to Oregon’s commercial beekeepers. “Beekeepers are wondering whether they are economically viable,” says Anita Azarenko, head of OSU’s department of horticulture. “That’s the biggest concern. It’s more than colony collapse.”

Like all farm work, commercial beekeeping is unrelenting and physically demanding. Oregon beekeepers are on the road most of the year, running to help pollinate the almond crop in California in the winter months, a job that brings in about 60% of their income, then it’s back to Oregon for the spring and summer pollination of cherries, pears, blueberries, carrot seeds and meadowfoam around the state. The costs of labor (a beekeeper needs about one employee per 1,000 hives), transportation, restocking, new queens, medicine and feed are constantly rising. To be a good beekeeper, you have to be a jack of all trades, good at mechanics, biology, botany, geography and, yes, PR. You’ve got to convince landowners to let you use their property for bee pasture, land that is becoming increasingly rare because of urbanization and farming. The willing landowners are paid in liquid gold.

“We don’t have our own land to keep our bees; nobody does,” says Lohman. “You couldn’t keep 2,000 colonies. Your neighbors would kill you. We bring our bees into 12 yards, people with 20 acres. People are kind about letting us use their property, but it is getting harder to find those yards.”

It requires tenacity and vigilance to make this all work. “A beekeeper has to be willing to stay on top of his program,” says Dave LeFore of LeFore Honey Farms in Milton-Freewater. “Always monitoring, looking for mites and disease. If the bee is not doing well, looking at options. In the difficult years when production is low, surviving can be challenging.”

Growers also realize there is a scarcity of bees. Beekeepers are able to get some better prices than before. But that doesn’t diminish the problems of keeping a healthy colony. It’s a big challenge to create high-quality hives to offer for pollination.

So a few more answers on how to be a better steward are greatly needed because success is never a sure thing, even for superior beekeepers like Hansen, who despite his vigilance lost nearly everything in 1997 to the tracheal mite. He and other beekeepers have put their own money in to help fund OSU’s research.

“A lot of problems we have are due to exotic pests, changes in the environment. All wild pollinators are in decline: birds, bees, bats. It is a serious problem that isn’t going to go away,” says Hansen. “If 40% of all the cows in the U.S. died every year, like in some bee hives every winter, there would be some serious money being spent to solve the problem.”



Portland Bizzy Bee
0 #1 Native PollinatorsPortland Bizzy Bee 2010-09-30 15:55:49
Nicely written article Robin. Please consider writing a postscript in the future that provides some ink to the growing domestication and use of native pollinators (e.g. orchard mason bees, horn faced bees, and leaf cutter bees).

For the past several years, some entomologists have been working with almond growers in California on the use of orchard mason bees. I know this, because that's where the bulk of my surplus bees have gone over the past few years.

Successful native bee management requires a fundamentally different approach to agriculture. Monoculture crops don't co-exist well with native pollinators. However, there are cases of growers who are creating insectaries and planting diverse crops that make their farms more hospitable to native pollinators.

A couple of entreprenueurs in Washington are working on plans to develop large scale orchard mason bee businesses. Xerces Society, which is based in Portland, is the national leader in native pollinator research
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