Compared to almonds in California, blueberry pollination in British Columbia is small potatoes. But there are some similarities. Commercial beekeepers migrate long distances from cold northern prairies to the mild coast with thousands of colonies. They are paid for pollination and their bees get a boost with early pollen and mild temperatures. But beekeepers come away wondering if the hassle and stress on their bees was worth it.
Here in western Canada, several beekeepers from northern BC and Alberta have decided that the 1,200-kilometre trek to the lower mainland’s berry bushes isn’t worth it. The blueberry area near Vancouver needs at least 45,000 colonies of bees for successful pollination. The beekeepers who are rethinking the southwest migration hold about 4,000 hives. The difference – 10 percent – won’t cause a berry shortage this year. But it represents a growing concern among beekeepers that the monetary gain from hauling bees long distances isn’t compensating for the pressures and expenses involved.
An Alberta beekeeper – Danny Paradis – says in an interview that BC berry growers are using a new fungicide that weakened his bees, resulting in a poor summer for the colonies when they returned to Alberta after spring in BC. But one of the biggest commercial beekeepers in the Vancouver area, John Gibeau of Honeybee Centre, disagrees. He is the country’s top blueberry-pollinator. Gibeau tells reporters that nothing has really changed in 40 years but last year was a bad-weather year, resulting in weaker hives.
I know both of these beekeepers. They are smart professional operators. Neither has an ‘axe to grind’ but they obviously have different perspectives. In the end, beekeepers will decide if the money from spring pollination balances the cost in stress, time, transportation, and effort. Blueberry rental in British Columbia’s lower mainland is relatively new. Berry farms have expanded dramatically in the past two decades. Theoretically, over half a million colonies in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and BC’s Peace River could make the thousand-kilometre migratory pollination trip. But just two percent of those ‘potential’ bees actually are taken for a ride. To me, this suggests that Canadian migratory pollination isn’t quite worth the effort – something Danny Paradis might contend.
I’m not sure what British Columbia pollination fees are this spring, but in the past beekeepers told me that they were paid as much as $130/hive. That equals about 70 pounds of honey at recent wholesale prices. If colonies return to the prairies weak from pollination, they can easily lose that much honey on the summer crop – and it costs money to haul bees into pollination. (Besides, few commercial prairie beekeepers want to be on the coast and miss the local hockey and curling action. Some things are more important than money.)
Over the past fifty years, pollination fees for California almonds have gone from about $5 to $200 per hive. The colonies rented there are about twice as strong as they were in the early days of pollination, but the rental is still at least 20 times higher, per bee. But that’s still not enough to compensate beekeepers who end up with damaged colonies.
My guess is that more and more beekeepers will opt out of pollination. Meanwhile, some growers will switch to newly engineered self-pollinating crops and others will experiment with wind, mechanical pollinator-drones, or other schemes. But for the next few years, growers will offer more money – there is a huge advantage in doubling or tripling a crop by spending just a couple hundred dollars more per acre for bees. And many beekeepers will accommodate.
I live in Southern California. The almond pollination trek is always a subject of talk around any beekeeper group here. Some view taking bees to almonds as a sign you “have arrived” at the big time if you take your bees to the Central Valley. It’s always centered around the profits to be made. But, as your story points out, we live in a world rapidly expanding in industrial farming acreage and the use of exotic cocktails of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides—as well as the little researched (but now very suspect) “adjuvants” or the so-called “inert ingredients” in spray formulations. The losses to already heavily in-bred lines of Italian honey bees, the most used commercial variety, are large from these exposures. The stresses of trucking and feeding HFCS and pushing for early buildup and in-hive treatments all have effects. I was forced to move my main apiary of 23 honey production hives twice in the last 3 months and it was a sleepless, nerve-wracking time. The bees were just awful in responding to the upheaval. Now, they have been in their new, quiet, lovely meadow apiary about 3 weeks and are back to their former fine temperaments. I could not be a migratory beek.
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I’ve never done almonds, so I don’t have direct experience. But many years ago, I kept bees in Florida, hauled them to apple orchards in Pennsylvania and West Virginia right after orange blossom ended, then (after a couple of weeks, weather depending), I moved those same hives to Wisconsin in time for dandelion, followed by alfalfa. At that time, it actually helped the bees, even though their stay in apples was short. I had to quickly remove them before old-fashioned pesticides like carbaryl (Sevin), and organophosphates (malathion and diazinon) hit the trees and my bees.
Leaving my bees in Florida after orange blossom was not an option for me – nothing bloomed in the groves so I would have probably moved them to gallberry in north Florida and then pepper bush in the fall along the coast – if the bees stayed in Florida all year. Instead, the bees got a big boost from northern apples and I was paid enough to cover the year’s trucking costs. In those days, the apple orchards were smallish and there were dandelions in the grass between the trees, plus willow not far away. It wasn’t totally monoculture. I understand that things are a lot different in almonds and I’m glad that I never went there.
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As always, Ron, you present a balanced look at issues that beekeepers are juggling. Should single crop farmers like blueberry and almond growers be looking at diversifying; developing year round forage crops so that they can get into keeping their own bees? Would it be ultimately cheaper and better all round?
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Thanks. I really don’t know if managers of really large monoculture farms can be convinced to diversify. Unfortunately, it always ends up being driven by money. (Not saying that’s always a bad thing, but it does force decisions.) Of course, a lot of small U-Pick type farmers have been able to succeed with a good mix of crops. Your other comment, that growers might become beekeepers, has been tried quite a few times. Large growers soon discover that keeping bees year ’round in their groves generally ends in stunning failure. It’s awfully expensive to keep bees just for pollination and beekeeping requires management skills that take decades to get right.
Yeah, there are a million acres of almonds now in the Central Valley where the big inland freshwater sea used to exist. Reportedly, the Resnick clan (of “Figi water” “PomWonderful” and “Cuties” tangerines fame) are experimenting with forage cropping for pollinators between the rows of some of their tree crops. They want to try to keep pollinators on-site year ’round and used blue mason bees, also. They are also the biggest acreage owners of almonds. If “pepper bush” is Schinus terebinthifolius as we have a lot of that exotic here, it is a fine forage for my bees in late summer, early autumn, producing a very bright yellow honey and even yellow tinged wax in great quantity.
Have they tested for nosema cerana? This is becoming prevalent in hives here and sometimes hard to diagnose. Unfortunately I have had this in my apiary last year and just found I have another this year. Randy Oliver has some excellent new articles on this.
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