For beekeepers, there’s money in almonds despite colony losses

By Maria Wyllie

Beginning in November each year, Montana beekeepers load thousands of honeybee hives on flatbed trucks and migrate to California’s Central Valley for the coming almond pollination, a major event in commercial beekeeping.

The Golden State has a virtual monopoly on the crop, producing approximately 80 percent of the world’s almonds, which require pollination by 1.6 million – more than half – of America’s bee colonies. This means big business for beekeeping states likes Montana, which ranked fourth in honey production in 2014 and is home to about 160,000 colonies.

Without the help of honeybees, we wouldn’t have almonds – a primary reason the insect’s declining health is raising eyebrows. It’s been a topic of debate since 2006, when beekeepers started seeing significant colony attrition in the U.S., suffering an average annual loss of 32 percent.

Some beekeepers attribute these fatalities to Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon occurring when a hive’s worker bees mysteriously disappear, but the queen remains. However, CCD itself is quite rare, according to Cam Lay, Natural Resource Program Manager for Montana’s Department of Agriculture.

“Usually when a hive dies, you can tell why,” says Lay, who inspects apiaries – or collections of beehives – and issues health certificates allowing companies to bring their bees into California for pollination services, and then back to Montana where they’re based.

Instead, high annual bee losses usually result from a complex variety of factors ranging from poor bee management and nutrition, to pathogens and agrochemical exposure. But a definitive cause is up in the air.

MSU Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology assistant professor Michelle Flenniken inspects a frame of bees from a colony at a research farm on MSU’s campus in Bozeman. PHOTO COURTESY OF MSU MOUNTAINS AND MINDS/KELLY GORHAM

MSU Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology assistant professor Michelle Flenniken inspects a frame of bees from a colony at a research farm on MSU’s campus in Bozeman. PHOTO COURTESY OF MSU MOUNTAINS AND MINDS/KELLY GORHAM

“The real answer is we still don’t know,” said Michelle Flenniken, an assistant professor at Montana State University’s Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology. For one study, Flenniken and her team are examining the role of pathogens – including viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi – on honeybee health before, during, and after almond pollination.

“You really need to know what pathogens are present before you can correlate any of them with colony loss,” she said.

Despite these losses and recent reports claiming bees are in dire straits, honeybees are not facing extinction and our nation’s food supply is not running out. Beekeepers are actually doing well because, right now, there’s money in bees.

An almond has two primary needs: water and honeybee pollen. Approximately one gallon of water is needed to grow a single almond, a problem for California’s drought-ravaged agricultural landscape. Because honeybees are the only pollinators, almond growers pay the highest rental fees for their services, consequently dictating much of what happens in commercial beekeeping.

“All the commercial guys migrate [to California],” Lay said. “They can’t afford not to.”

Greg Fullerton, president of the Montana State Beekeepers Association and owner of Glacier County Honey in Babb, Montana, says the almond industry is a central reason why people are running so many hives right now. He points to poor management practices as a reason for colony losses, and says some beekeepers are losing colonies because they’re raising more bees than they can handle.

“It’s like overgrazing cattle,” Fullerton said. “It’s profitable enough now that everyone’s running way more than what I consider their economic threshold.”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, honeybees, which are considered a specialty crop at the state and federal level, provide $15 billion annually in agricultural products including honey and pollination services.

Glacier County Honey is a small-scale operation, cultivating approximately 1,600 colonies and working on a hive-to-hive basis rather than running up the numbers. By comparison, many of the bigger commercial companies are running multiple thousands of hives but don’t have the resources to adequately manage them, according to Fullerton.

“I don’t think the bees are completely dying across the country, and we’re going to be without,” he said.

A second-generation beekeeper, Fullerton says his family saw a mere 2-3 percent loss of bees in the 1980s and ‘90s. Now he sees 25 percent losses annually – a decline he believes is a consequence of increased stresses, such as new mites, pesticides and frequent migration.

Still, Fullerton doesn’t believe the bees are disappearing anytime soon. He and other apiarists cut their losses by splitting one colony into two and adding an extra queen. This is typically done right before almond pollination so the required 1.6 million colonies are ready to go.

Splitting hives enables beekeepers to meet the soaring demand for almonds, as well as more than 130 other crops pollinated by honeybees such as citrus fruits, alfalfa, and canola oil. The technique has also kept the average number of bee colonies in the U.S. at 2.5 million – a figure that hasn’t changed much since 2006, even when considering the 32 percent average annual loss.

“The business has continued to thrive,” Fullerton said. “Beekeepers are doing quite well.”

But Flenniken says splitting hives to meet demand is a poor method of balancing bee attrition. “If you think of honeybees like any other agricultural crop, we would not tolerate a 32 percent annual loss,” she said.

Increasing losses are also requiring beekeepers to work harder to maintain their hives. This compromises many of the foods we rely on for a solid, nutritious supply – a major reason why the Almond Board of California supports ongoing honeybee research, according to the group’s website.

The 2014 Almond Almanac states that the 2013-14 almond-crop year achieved the highest overall shipments and the second highest production level by almond growers worldwide. The U.S. market set a record for the eighth consecutive year, with shipments up 9 percent over 2013, at 641.8 million pounds.

The $6.4 billion industry couldn’t exist without honeybees, and if demand for almonds – one of the world’s favorite snacks – increases as expected, it remains to be seen if the honeybee supply can keep up, even when splitting hives.

Consequently, while the bees aren’t likely to disappear, the cost of pollination services will rise. This means food prices will go up, and you’ll either need to find a new go-to snack, or pony up for almonds.

This story was first published in the summer 2015 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.