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Archive for May 7th, 2009

Migrant Bees: Show me the Honey

By Richie Gerber

News Flash: 10 Billion Bees descend on California’s Central Valley!

Bee on Richie's Mango Tree ©Richie Gerber
Bee on Richie’s Mango Tree ©Richie Gerber

This might sound like an alarm or call to action but in fact it is a yearly occurrence. It is the largest migration of “workers” in the US, actually in the world. Every February over 2,200 18-wheelers carrying more than 1.2 million hives from all parts of the US descend on California with their 10 billion bees. No, it is not Woodstock for the bees! The 10 billion bees descend on California in order to pollinate the almond crop.  It’s nuts, literally. That is equal to lining up 2,200 trucks end to end from Midtown Manhattan to Greenwich, Connecticut 30 miles away.

California’s Agricultural Industrial Almond Complex yields over 80% of the world’s almonds. This makes almonds the number one horticultural export crop in the US and generates over 2 billion dollars in income. It is also California’s #1 agricultural export. Over 1,100 square miles in central California are devoted to almonds. 700,000 acres with about two hives per acre dot this area every February.

For about three weeks in February ¾ of all the nations commercial honeybees are working in the almond groves of California. Just to put things into perspective next year the almond growers will need to increase the number of hives from 1.2 million to 2 million because of new trees maturing as well as increased acreage. This means that the need for honeybees to pollinate the almond crop will increase from 10 billion bees to over 16 billion bees in just one season for just one crop, for just three weeks. Astounding!!! Bee-yond Bee-lief.

After the three week almond bloom is over and the trees have passed flowering the beekeepers pack up the hives with their special forklifts and load them back onto their flatbed tractor-trailers. Than they deliver the hives to the next crop to bloom. After that, the next crop bloom and on and on; apples in Washington State, cranberry bogs in Cape Cod, blueberries in Maine, citrus in Florida, watermelons, cantaloupes, melons, cucumbers, squash, mangos, avocado, cherries, pears etc.… This is the life of the migrant bee, over worked, under paid and underappreciated. 

Bees have always been primarily prized for their honey, which has been a food staple since prehistoric times. Since the advent of modern agricultural industrial methods the relationship of bees and food production has changed dramatically. The role of the bee has grown from a producer of food to a pollinator service provider.

The commercial beekeeper harvests his honey but that has become a smaller percentage of his income compared to renting out his bees. The almond farmers pay about $165 per box (hive) for the three-week bloom. If a beekeeper ships his 30,000 hives for the almond bloom he or she can expect to receive $500,000. Yes, you heard me right, a half a million dollars for THREE WEEKS. Don’t get me wrong; I am not criticizing the beekeeper for making money. I think that is wonderful. It is hard work and with hive loss etc. it is a very risky business. The same goes for the farmer. It is a tough and risky business. 2008’s bumper crop produced 1.5 billion pounds of almonds. 2009 will probably be about 1/3 less because of weather conditions as well as weak pollination. So both the farmer and beekeeper must deal with the age-old feast or famine dilemma. I respect them both immensely.

Bees, you can live with them but you can’t live without them.

Bees have been around over 25 million years. In today’s world they have become an essential part of our agricultural food production industry. While they pollinate one third of the food we eat we have been oblivious to their buzz for help. They are exposed to all sorts of toxic herbicides, pesticides, insecticides and other toxic substances. Each different agricultural area and crop requires it’s own unique chemical cocktail. Although the crops are never sprayed during the pollination season they are certainly treated before the bees arrive. There must be some residue remaining on the plants, which may be toxic to the bees.

Epp-BEE-Log: Since modern woman/man has changed the job description of the noble bee from food producer and added on pollinator service provider we must be more conscious of how bees are treated. Trucking them tens of thousands of miles a year to various agricultural areas with diverse climates and crops must take some toll on them. They also are exposed to more toxic substances living this nomadic life.

Let’s heed their buzz. All we are saying is,” GIVE BEES A CHANCE’.

There is much more to this story that I will cover in future articles. 

* California Almond Board

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