Migrant bees key to state's crops
In sheer numbers, it's the biggest migration of workers in the world.
month, nearly three-quarters of all the nation's commercial honeybees
will be in California's ever-expanding almond orchards to do
by the rocketing prices now offered by almond farmers, beekeepers from
as far away as Florida are hauling more than 2,200
supply and demand. That's what drives the whole dang thing," said
Brent Woodworth, 52, a beekeeper from Halliday, N.D., who has
a month's business in the almond orchards, Woodworth's bees will bring
him about $520,000, a total that has tripled in the past decade
The big money to be made in pollination -- beekeepers charge up to $140 or more per hive -- has transformed the bee industry.
fairly recently, commercial beekeepers generally focused on honey production
and moved their bees just a few times a year, if at
San Joaquin Valley towns like Oakdale, 30 miles east of Stockton and
within easy reach of the almond orchards, entire hotels fill with
has kept bees since childhood. On a recent morning, he worked among
1,450 hives east of town, on a grassy slope with
of the hives had just arrived from winter storage in Idaho. Such long
trips drain the colonies, and Woodworth and his crew pried open
the roving pollination business has poured cash into a U.S. bee industry
that has been contracting for two decades, it has not led to
trend is of great concern to the California almond industry, which projects
30 percent growth -- to 750,000 acres -- by 2010. In
With much to gain from a growing almond industry, beekeepers say they're doing their best to expand.
"Each one of us is trying to raise more hives," beekeeper Gene Brandi said at a meeting of the Delta Bee Club in Los Banos on Tuesday.
But, Brandi said, most struggle just to keep their bee populations stable.
nationwide are infested with exotic mites that feed on bee larvae and
infect the respiratory tracts of mature bees. What's more,
"We've got to solve this die-off problem," Brandi said.
the Los Banos meeting, which packed the local Masonic Hall, several
bee disease experts spoke to a group of 100 beekeepers, many from out
One factor likely contributing to the bees' ill health is the bee industry's increasing mobility.
For one thing, gathering bees from all over the country in the San Joaquin Valley helps the spread of disease. A parasite carried by a colony of Florida bees, say, can spread to a group of North Dakota bees, if the two happen to be working in adjacent orchards.
a huge mixing bowl out here," said Jeff Pettis, a research entomologist
with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bee Research
In addition, Pettis said, long-distance hauling stresses the bees, killing some and leaving the survivors weak and open to infection.
the pasture near Oakdale, Woodworth kicked at a long pile of bee carcasses.
The night before, his crew had unwrapped a tarp from a
truckload situation like that is real unnatural for bees," said
Woodworth, a compact man with blue eyes and a trim red moustache. "The
thing that's unnatural is for bees to be active at this time of year
at all. If Woodworth's bees weren't under contract to
population of a hive rises and falls through the year, varying from
10,000 to 40,000 or more. The low point comes in winter. That's
this morning, Woodworth and his crew were getting the bees in shape
to go to work. They stepped briskly from hive to hive, serving
of the hives appear to have come through the ride from Idaho in good
health, he said. That's important. If a beekeeper delivers a
growers say bee rental now makes up about 20 percent of their operating
costs. Farmers typically rent two to three hives per acre of
the industry is hunting for alternatives. Varieties of bees that do
not make honey and thus have not traditionally been raised by
grower Dan Cummings, who has 4,000 acres of orchards in the Sacramento
Valley, has hedged against rising bee prices by buying a
wanted to exercise a little more control over that part of the business,"
Cummings said. "If we're already using 70 percent (of the
For now, though, most growers depend entirely on the hundreds of out-of-state beekeepers like Woodworth.
week, he and his crew were busy moving the hives into orchards near
the little town of Waterford, 10 miles southeast of Oakdale. With
the hives are in place, Woodworth's work is done -- until late March,
when it's time to pick up the boxes and head to Washington for
Left alone in an almond orchard, the bees will fan out from the clusters of hives, seeking blossoms.
"They know what to do," Woodworth said.