Where's the buzz?

Beekeepers stung by fewer honeybees; sticky issue for ag sector.

Kathy Cobb | Contributing Writer

Published September 1, 2007  | September 2007 issue

If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.—Albert Einstein

While no one is predicting the extinction of bees—or humans—anytime soon, Einstein's observation is in the minds of beekeepers, apiarists and crop producers worldwide.

For the past year or so, a mysterious disease has been striking honeybee hives around the world, seriously depleting the bee population and leading to lost revenue for beekeepers and higher costs to farm producers who rely on bees to pollinate their crops.

The potential decimation of honeybee populations is important because about one-third of the human diet comes from pollinated plants—more than 90 flowering fruits and vegetables, among other crops. And honeybees lay claim to about 80 percent of that pollination, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The work of honeybees translates to about $15 billion a year in value to the U.S. food supply, according to the USDA. Beekeepers add another $200 million worth of honey each year.

Known as colony collapse disorder (CCD), the disease has left empty hives from England and Switzerland to Brazil and the United States, where beekeepers in 35 states lost honeybees last winter and spring. According to a survey of 625 beekeepers by Bee Alert Technology in Missoula, Mont., nearly 40 percent who reported severe losses from a variety of causes lost 75 percent or more of their bees.

Among affected district beekeepers is Keith Ellingson, past president of the American Beekeepers Association and the Minnesota Honey Producers, and owner and president of Ellingson's Inc. in Ortonville, Minn. Ellingson lost 65 percent of his hives last winter in California and Texas. Today, his hives are mostly replenished, but he said that while 85 percent of his bees look good, the other 15 percent appear to be struggling.

Bob Reiners, South Dakota's state apiarist, reported that 10 percent to 20 percent of his state's producers had significant winter losses in California and Southern states. Many North Dakota winter migrating beekeepers were also affected, said Rhonda Stradinger, owner with her husband of Stradinger Apiaries Inc. in Mercer, N.D., and vice president of the North Dakota Beekeepers Association. The Stradingers lost about 50 percent of their hives in California waiting for the almond season to begin and had to scurry to replace their losses to meet contract demands.

No sweet home

What makes CCD so insidious is that there are no dead bodies to autopsy. The affected bees simply leave the hive to go to work and never return. The fallout from their disappearance is that the young (brood) bees and the queen left in the hive, dependent on the workers for food, die as well. With each hive typically containing 50,000 to 60,000 worker bees, losses can add up quickly. The Apiary Inspectors of America calculates that of the estimated 2.4 million hives nationwide, CCD claimed a quarter since last fall, a fivefold increase over the usual losses.

No single, direct cause of CCD has yet been discovered, but scientists suggest it may be a combination of factors, including mites, certain pesticides, lack of genetic diversity and urban sprawl close to fields that are sources of bee food. Poor hive management and stress caused by shipping colonies to other states to pollinate crops also could be contributing factors.

But it's hard to tell if CCD will be an issue again this year because bees are at their peak production in the summer months, when the queen lays between 1,500 and 2,000 eggs daily and the brood is constantly growing into worker bees. By July 1, a hive can have up to 80,000 bees. That population declines to between 25,000 and 30,000 bees in a hive when activity slows from mid-August until February. That's when diseases can be better detected, said Andy Drange, owner and manager of Drange Apiary in Laurel, Mont., and president of the Montana Beekeepers Association.

Bee die-offs have occurred before. A suspicious ailment similar to CCD affected colonies in the 1960s and '70s, and again in 2004. In 2006, CCD was observed in the Dakotas, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa during the summer. Judy Carlson, North Dakota apiary inspector, suggested that losses over the winter could be attributed in part to last year's drought, because bees went into winter weaker than usual.

Stradinger agreed that drought has played a role in her business. "Many of us live in a drought area. We had only half of our honey crop because of that," Stradinger said. "Disease is not new to those of us who've been in the business a long time," but she added that it was the massive winter hit that got all the attention.

While CCD has captured the headlines because of its dramatic effects on bee populations, parasitic mites infested wild honeybees and captive colonies in the 1980s and '90s, and the Varroa mite, in particular, continues to be a problem. It kills most infected colonies within a year or two if not treated. And the mites are becoming increasingly resistant to those chemicals designed to eradicate them.

They don't do it just for the honey

The Ninth District has a strong presence in the bee industry (see charts). Every district state ranks in the top 10 in terms of honey-producing bee colonies, and North Dakota is the nation's leader. District states, rife with sweet clover and alfalfa fields as well as large acreages set aside in the Conservation Reserve Program, have always been a magnet for nectar-collecting bees.

Chart: Honey Production, 2006

Chart: Honey-Producing Colonies, 2006

But while the consumer focus is on honey, bees have a much more valuable role in the food chain as pollinators. And for most beekeepers, it's the pollination fees that pay the bills, trucking hives across the country to let bees do what they do best on various crops.

"Honey was the engine that [once] pulled the industry, but now it's pollination," said Richard Adee, owner of Adee Honey Farms in Bruce, S.D., the nation's, and purportedly the world's, largest beekeeping operations. Adee's businesses involve 80,000 colonies with about 4.8 billion bees housed in South Dakota, Mississippi, California, Nebraska, North Dakota, Minnesota and Washington state. With pollination, he added, "you do the input, get a contract and you know what you're getting paid at the end." Adee, who is also chairman of the American Honey Producers Association legislative committee, speculated that beekeepers now earn 60 percent or more of their income from pollination alone.

Honeybees, which are among 17,000 known species of bees worldwide and 1,500 in the United States, are by far the best pollinators of North American crops, according to a National Academy of Sciences study. Those honeybees fertilize $15 billion in crops annually across the country.

The fear of losing honeybees is greater because they have been introduced as pollinators for some food crops, like almonds, that now wholly require bees to produce. Once wild bees could be counted on to do the work of pollination, but they have been affected greatly by pesticides and mites, Carlson said.

Should crop production be limited because of truncated pollination, ultimately consumers could face a shortage of products and higher prices.

Where it all be(e)gins

During the winter, 80 percent of the country's honeybees, including many from the Ninth District, migrate to central California for the almond pollination season.

California's orchards supply 80 percent of the world's almonds and constitute a $2.5 billion industry. Without honeybees, there would be no almonds. According to Adee, there is already a shortage of bees for that season, and the problem may get worse as the industry grows—and if more bees succumb to disease. Now, the 625,000 acres devoted to almonds use about 1 million bee colonies. But it's expected that another one-half million colonies will be needed for pollination by 2012 as more cotton farmers shift to almond production, Adee said.

Once the almond season is over, beekeepers scatter to other warm climates and/or spring crops in Texas, Florida and other Western and Southern states to build up their hives. Then comes the second-largest bee pollination migration, across the country to Maine, where blueberries are as important to that state as almonds are to California. Adee said farmers there "are equally concerned, because without bees there are no blueberries."

No lazy summer for district bees

Although most of the major agricultural crops in the Ninth District do not rely on honeybees for pollination, the bees need those crops for their nectar. And in the process of nectar-gathering, the bees may increase summer crop production.

One district crop is dependent on honeybee pollination: cranberries. Wisconsin grows about 60 percent of the nation's cranberry crop, worth more than $130 million annually, said Tom Lochner, executive director, Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association in Wisconsin Rapids. Lochner said there appeared to be no bee shortage for this season, which ran from late June through early July. But while bees were ready to go to work at this writing, it cost the growers more. Prices were reportedly up about $10 a hive, or $20 to $30 an acre.

Honeybees are also vital to a number of smaller crops grown across the district. In addition to cranberries, Wisconsin's apples, worth $19 million, and cherries, a $2.5 million crop, benefit from bee pollination.

David Weber, a beekeeper in Clayton, Wis., and northwest district chairman of the Wisconsin Honey Producers Association, noted that cucumber yields are 400 percent greater if plants are pollinated by honeybees. Weber contracts some of his bees to farmers in about a 40-mile radius of his home to pollinate apples, strawberries, cucumbers, squash and pumpkins.

About 30 percent of Michigan's produce is pollinated by honeybees, including fruit crops such as cherries, apples and blueberries. Cherry orchards in Montana's Flathead Valley use pollination services as well, according to the honey association's Drange.

Of the 200 or so beekeepers in South Dakota, about 90 have commercial bee operations, according to apiarist Reiners. He added that any crop pollination in South Dakota is accidental and free because the focus is on honey production when the bees are in the state.

However, throughout the Ninth District, honeybees enhance the yields of such crops as alfalfa grown for seed and hybrid sunflowers, in addition to soybeans, corn and crops grown for forage.

If honeybees aren't directly impacting district crop production, look at one potential domino effect should the honeybee population be decimated: In South Dakota, honeybees are important to maintaining food supply and cover for pheasants and grouse as well as other wildlife. According to a South Dakota Department of Agriculture report on the value of honeybees to the state, "[P]roduction of sweet clover ... provides seed as winter food for pheasants and other birds, winter wind protection and seed to maintain the plant population over the years." Hunting game birds is big business in that state.

And if you're a honey lover, expect to pay more at stores. Annual honey production in 2006 was down 11 percent compared to a year earlier, and yield per colony was down a similar amount, according to the USDA. That pushed 2006 honey prices up 14 percent.

Be(e)ware of rising costs

Although CCD isn't affecting bees this summer in district states, and most district crops don't rely on honeybee pollination contracts, district beekeepers are worried about the next migratory pollination season.

Overall, captive honeybee populations have dwindled from 5.9 million colonies in 1947 to 2.4 million in 2005, according to the National Academy of Sciences. "There is a long-term decline in the number of people raising bees," said Weber, the Wisconsin beekeeper. "It's increasingly difficult to keep bees," he said. "Years ago if you lost 5 percent of your bees, you were considered sloppy, now we're looking at 30 percent as the norm."

Some beekeepers are having trouble finding enough bees to fill orders, and farmers are paying more for that service. In Michigan estimates run from $50 to $80 for a hive compared with $40 to $45 last spring.

South Dakota's Adee noted that blueberry growers in New England had to search farther away than usual to have enough pollinating bees this past spring, and those beekeepers added a fuel surcharge to bring bees from greater distances.

As recently as two years ago, almond producers paid about $30 to rent a hive; today the cost runs from $100 to $140.

One source noted that rental fees turn into replacement costs, with rental prices jumping to cover the cost of buying or breeding new bees.

In addition to raising bees for pollination services and honey production, Minnesota's Ellingson said his related businesses of selling bee pollen, wax and other products are his "positioning businesses" if beekeeping fails to be profitable.

David Anthony, president of the Beekeepers Association of Michigan and owner of Anthony Bee Farms near Flint, noted that some Michigan beekeepers are calling it quits because they can't keep up financially with the cost of replacing bees. He said that a few years ago beekeepers would lose maybe 3 percent to 4 percent of their bees over a winter, now it could be up to 80 percent, making the cost of replacement too high. Anthony, who calls himself a small beekeeper, had to put $10,000 to $15,000 into new bees. Anthony's bees don't migrate across the country, and he hasn't suffered losses from CCD, but his business has been affected by mites and other issues.

Drange in Montana is concerned about the future of honeybees. "When 70 percent to 80 percent of your bees die in a year, it's hard to keep going."

Sweeten the pot, please

The quest for research dollars to find the cause of CCD and other diseases sent beekeepers and scientists swarming to Capitol Hill this past spring.

Beekeepers also are looking for some help in the next iteration of the federal farm bill in the form of special disaster payments for beekeepers whose colonies have suffered severe losses, subsidies to encourage better beekeeping practices, stricter country-of-origin labeling rules to spur sales of domestic honey and more money for overall research.

And the answer is?

A few potential solutions to honeybee shortages include introducing new species of bees. For example, at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station in Bingham Township, research on hornfaced bees as pollinators is growing in importance as honeybees die off. While the research began before CCD became an issue, it has some added urgency. These bees come from Japan, where they have pollinated orchards for more than 70 years, and they are less affected by cool and windy weather than honeybees. They don't produce honey, however, which means they won't help beekeepers stay in business year-round.

Another option, already used by some U.S. beekeepers, is to import honeybees. Australia has sold around 350 million bees to U.S. keepers worth almost $4 million (Australian) already. And thus far Australian bees seem to be unaffected by the Varroa mite.

Whatever the long-term solutions, beekeepers are holding their collective breath as they move into the migratory pollination season to see if CCD returns with the same vengeance again this year.

"You can import all the sweeteners you want," Ellingson said, "but you can't import pollination."