by Bill and Mary Weaver
Pollination prices are expected to be trending upward on the East Coast this spring, with perhaps a shortage of hives for rental in some areas.
Beekeepers generally agree on the reasons for the rise in prices. First, trucking costs for semi-loads of bees are soaring. One large pollinator said he’s seeing $3 a mile trucking costs to move hives, even though the trucking costs for hauling other types of freight are much lower. Another commercial pollinator said it costs him $3300 a semi-load of 480 hives to bring his bees from his Florida base back to New Jersey for pollination.
“The higher trucking cost for hauling bees is because there is more liability and cost for the truckers. It only takes one human error, and the trucker has a massive liability on his hands.
“In fact, some trucking companies that used to haul bees will no longer truck them for any price because of liability issues. It can be hard to find bee haulers, even at $3 a mile,” while several years ago this was not the case.
A second expensive problem all beekeepers are facing is the cost of treating for mites, and nosema, a necessary part of keeping bee colonies alive in today’s world. The cost is high both for materials and labor.
One commercial pollinator says he pays $20,000 a year just to treat his bee. Another beekeeper estimates his costs at $8 to $10 a hive, for materials only. The labor to apply the chemicals is on top of that.
Labor costs for treating for mites can be high, involving regularly removing any honey supers and queen excluders to get down to the brood nest, then doing one of several tests to determine mite populations for each hive.
If mite populations are growing, it means they’re developing resistance to miticide, and a different material needs to be bought and applied.
Third, hive losses year after year across the U.S. are unacceptably high. One smaller beekeeper was pleased he had “only” 30 percent hive losses last winter. (In the preceding winters, his losses were 60 percent and 70 percent respectively.)
One formerly very large operation has been hit with huge losses. The beekeepers are currently going through the remaining hives to determine how many are strong enough to send to pollinate California almonds. “It sounds like we’ll be lucky to get 1 to 1 1/2 semi-loads this year,” commented one of the beekeepers involved. “Last year we sent two loads. Before that we generally had enough strong hives to fill four semi-loads.” California almond pollination is a major income source for many commercial beekeepers, helping to pay the bills so they can stay in business.
He sounded discouraged, as do a lot of beekeepers. “I ask myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’” he continued. “If I were the only person involved, I’d have pulled the plug and had a fire sale.”
A smaller New Jersey pollinator said he thinks all the hives he had in cranberry pollination last year, after going rapidly downhill, have since died.
As one large beekeeper put it, “Pollen pricing is on the rise because of the high cost of business, the high cost of keeping the bees alive, and the large number of colony losses most pollinators sustain.”
But the hive losses are the most disheartening. The problem appears to be world-wide. And the problem involves far more than predatory mites.
Growers should be aware that some of the high hive losses appear to some scientists and beekeepers to be the result of a class of pesticides that are widely used and depended upon, the neonicotinoids, including clothianadin, imidacloprid, and thiametoxam.
These pesticides are systemics that transport the neonics to the plants’ pollen and nectar, which make them toxic to the bees.
The neonics are also used as seed treatments for corn and canola, among other crops. The treated seeds are sometimes mixed with talc for easier movement through planting equipment. Unfortunately, the dust raised at planting from the neonic-laced talc can waft to nearby hives, as well as contaminate the soil and plants in uncultivated wild areas.
Neonics have already been outlawed for some uses in Germany, France, and Slovenia and, according to a BBC article, the European Union will soon vote on the issue, as well.
Some U.S. East Coast pollinators believe they have noticed a connection. “Put your bees down next to a cornfield, and they’ll soon be dead,” commented one. “Also,” he said, “Penn State studies show that if your bees are next to apples where systemic pesticides are used, you’ll begin to see a shortening of the lives of the bees, the larvae, and the next generation. Somewhere, you run out of wiggle room.”
“Neonics are also used on turf to control larvae,” added another, “and hobby beekeepers around golf courses have very high losses. A lot of growers are spraying with these chemicals right after bloom.” He hopes that the time between blueberry pollinations is long enough to get the chemical out of the blueberry plants and the soil in which they grow.
Beekeepers who pollinate organic cranberry bogs may not be much safer. In New England, where Spinosad is sometimes used in organic bogs when the chemical is still wet on the plants, it has extreme acute contact toxicity.
Cranberry flowers have very low amounts of pollen and nectar. The sugar levels of the cranberry nectar vary by variety, and for some varieties the level is quite low. This appears to be genetically controlled.
In addition, cranberry pollen, according to a large migratory pollinator, what there is of it, is of poor quality and “less nutritious than some other pollens.” He puts blueberry pollen in the same category. Many cranberry bogs and commercial blueberry plantings are virtual monocultures. There aren’t other plants nearby for the bees to forage on. “You have to ‘pack your bees a lunch’ before cranberry pollination. But that often isn’t enough to stave off serious decline.”
Several beekeepers’ worst hive losses for the year are shortly after cranberry pollination. “They just go downhill.”
There is a rising chorus among East Coast beekeepers about fungicides being applied during the daytime, when the bees are working. One New Jersey pollinator said he understands that daytime application is necessary in his area. The fungicides are sprayed by plane, and the pilots can’t see the location of the bogs at night.
“But,” he adds, “My bees saw a lot more fungicides this year than in past years, and my hive losses after cranberries were very high. Fungicides aren’t considered toxic to bees, and growers don’t have to tell beekeepers when they’ll be spraying fungicides like they do with pesticides. But it appears that some fungicides may be more toxic than is currently recognized. We need research to determine which ones are. In the meantime, I’m going to try to develop a better relationship with my growers, so they’ll take the time to let me know when fungicides will be sprayed.”
So what’s the pollination outlook for this year on the East Coast? Right now, it’s uncertain, but hopeful. Commercial beekeepers in the South have been hard at work raising queens and making splits to make up their losses. But there is talk of package bees not building up fast enough to be shaken more than once, and a shortage of “nucs,” small hives sold as replacements or to add to colony numbers.
As one beekeeper commented, “There might be enough bees in the country to take care of pollination, but some may not be in the right place.”
The East Coast pollination picture — from the beekeeper’s point of view
by Bill and Mary Weaver