Deadly pest cuts beehive supply and sends growers scrambling for pollination services

By Vicky Boyd


Although concerns about farm labor availability continue to mount entering the 2006 season, some growers are worried about a shortage of a different type of worker—those with six legs, wings and pollination duties.

Beekeepers say growers shouldn’t expect 2006 to be as dire as 2005, when the pinhead-sized varroa mite killed an average of 40 percent of beehives nationally and created a bee shortage. Nonetheless, the pest continues to take its toll on bees, and prices for beehive rentals have increased to reflect decreased bee supplies and increased beekeeper costs.

“Beekeepers were hoping they did things better, which they probably did,” says Eric Mussen, University of California Extension Apiculturist in Davis. “And they were hoping to have some relief from varroa. It does appear—unless things change, and there’s still time—that the situation is somewhat better than last year, but they still have problems.”

Gene Brandi, a Los Banos, Calif., beekeeper who rents hives for pollination and sells package bees and honey, agrees.

“Last year we had 20 percent of the colonies already dead and many, many more were severely weakened,” Brandi says. “Right now [mid-December], we have over 10 percent dead. Quite frankly, I don’t count that often because it’s depressing.”

Brandi credits improved fall 2005 conditions that allowed his bees to forage on native plants and collect winter food supplies for better hive survival. Although beekeepers supplement hives with protein and sugar syrup during the winter, Brandi says they can’t replace the nutrients in natural food.

He and other beekeepers also have been keeping closer eye on their colonies to try to catch problems earlier. They also are watching their hives for a relatively new pest, the small-hive beetle, which can kill an already weakened hive.

Danny Weaver, Navasota, Texas, beekeeper and vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation, says his business is experiencing the results of that vigilance.

“Many beekeepers are discovering they don’t have as many colonies alive, and they are ordering package bees much earlier,” says Weaver, who sells queens and package bees to other beekeepers and began offering pollination services to California almond growers in 2004. “Everyday I get more and more calls about package bees from Australia.

“I’ve exhausted my initial supply, and I’m trying to round up more bees. That’s a pretty good indication that a lot of people are waking up to deja vu all over again.”

Almond crop is bee bellwether

The California almond industry relies heavily on bee pollination services, and it’s also the first pollination crop of the season. Of the approximately 2 million commercial hives in the United States, the almond industry requires about 1.3 million during a six-week period in February and March.

At best California beekeepers can supply about half, so out-of-state beekeepers truck in hives to make up the rest. And what happens in the West may affect growers elsewhere.

“A lot of bees were sucked off the East Coast that were normally there to pollinate the whole gamut of crops from Florida to Maine,” Weaver says about the 2005 situation. “I got calls from fruit growers in the East, in Florida, in Maryland, in Massachusetts and Maine, and that has never before happened.

“The needs of the almond industry in California are likely to have a domino effect in other areas of pollination-affected agriculture.”

The laws of economics

During the 2005 almond pollination season, typical contracts for beehives ranged from $80 to $85 per eight-frame hive, although last minute contracts were as high as $150 per hive. And Extension recommends at least two hives per acre of almonds.

Early contracts for the 2006 almond season typically ranged from $125 to $150, many beekeepers report.

Part of the higher price is simply due to supply and demand. Almond acreage has increased the past few years, requiring more bees.

But beekeepers say they need to also charge more because of bee losses incurred the past few years and the additional cost of labor to manage the colonies and keep them healthy.

Many beekeepers also rely on honey for income. With China dumping cheap product on the market, prices have plummeted from about $1.50 per pound two years ago to slightly more than 50 cents per pound. And beekeepers say they need to make up for the income loss.

Dan Cummings, a Chico, Calif., almond grower who’s also a partner in a bee operation, says they contacted clients in August 2005 about renting hives for $125 each for this year’s almond pollination season.

The price was 47 percent more than the $85 per hive they charged for the 2005 season and 57 percent more than for 2004. But all of their clients signed with them.

"I know what our expenses have done because I watch the bottom line,” says Cummings, who chairs the Almond Board of California’s Bee Task Force.

Other beekeepers approached their almond farming clients at the same time, and some balked at the price. Two to three months later, they’re paying as high as $150 per hive.

“There’s been such a dramatic transition in the whole cost structure of bees that occurred at a time when there’s been a dramatic transition in the price of almonds, so it’s really unsettled,” Cummings says.

Five years ago, he allocated 8 percent of his almond production variable-input costs to beehive rental. This year, it will be 20 percent.

As Weaver points out, out-of-state beekeepers take an added economic risk when they ship hives into California from another state.

Should agricultural inspectors at the Arizona or California border find red imported fire ants or other quarantined pests, they can prohibit the bees from entering, forcing the beekeeper to take his hives elsewhere.

“It can be a major disaster if you put truckloads of bees on the road from Texas and are then turned away at the California and Arizona borders,” Weaver says.

A new voluntary pilot certification program developed by the California Department of Food and Agriculture may provide some relief for out-of-state beekeepers, Weaver says. If they have their hives inspected by agriculture department officials in the originating state and there are no more than five worker ants per load, the bees can enter California with reduced restrictions.

A small pest packs a wallop

Much of the tight bee supply is due to the varroa mite, a bee parasite first discovered in the United States in 1987. It has since spread nationwide to infest both domestic and wild bee colonies.

Varroa mites weaken colonies by feeding on the hemolymph, or insect blood, of adult and immature bees. If left untreated, a heavy mite infestation can kill a bee colony in one to two years.

Heading into the 2005 pollination season, varroa mites killed about 40 percent of commercial bee colonies nationwide, although some beekeepers lost a significantly higher percentage.

In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency registered Apistan, which, although costly, helped beekeepers control the mite. By the mid-1990s, varroa mite started becoming resistant to that treatment as well as another, CheckMite Plus, that the EPA subsequently registered.

Two new products—Sucrocide and ApiLife VAR—offer beekeepers some hope. But each has shortcomings, Mussen says. Both require multiple treatments, and both are not as effective controlling varroa as Apistan and CheckMite were at their peak.

After years of selective breeding, Weaver has developed strains of varroa-resistant bees and doesn’t need to treat his bee colonies in Texas, North Dakota or Montana for the pest. Unfortunately, he says, there aren’t nearly enough of those bees to go around.

A relatively new pest—small hive beetle—is adding to beekeepers’ worries. Although it appears the beetle isn’t as devastating as the varroa mite, it can still kill colonies already stressed by varroa.

“There are a lot of queen breeders up here in the Sacramento Valley, and we are pretty darned concerned about it. It’s frightening,” says Cummings, whose firm also sells package and queen bees.