Peter Loring Borst
Ithaca NY; February 2014
The headlines are sensational: one third of bees died again this winter. So, why have bees not vanished by now? Only a few years of successive die-offs of this magnitude should do the trick, right? Well, no. Beekeepers have been recovering from winter die back for many centuries. Prior to the invention of the modern hive, bees were kept in baskets or logs. These were “hefted” in the fall. The light ones were killed and the honey taken, as they probably wouldn’t survive with a short supply of honey. The heavy ones were killed, as they were too good to pass up. So, prior to winter the beekeeper reduced numbers by up to two thirds. Then in the spring, the hives were restocked by catching “swarms” which is the honey bees’ natural method of increasing the number of colonies.
In the 1800s, commercial beekeeping got its start. There was a concerted effort to reduce winter losses. The hives were adequately provisioned with honey, and yet – in cold regions of the US and Canada, losses still ran as high as 50%. Winter is just plain hard on bees. And yet, by simply dividing the hives in spring, these losses could be recouped. Even so, Canadian beekeepers found it more economical to harvest all the honey, and kill the bees in fall, reducing winter losses to zero. By purchasing bees from California, the Canadian beekeepers were able to restock every spring, make a profitable honey crop, and experience zero winter loss by losing all the bees in fall.
How is this possible? The fact is, a package of bees consisting of three pounds of bees and a new queen can under ideal conditions grow into a producing unit in six weeks. This means that bees can be installed into empty hives in May and be storing bumper crops of honey in July, at the height of the summer season. The prime honey regions are the far northern provinces where vast acres are planted to blooming crops such as clover, alfalfa and canola.
This changed in the 1980s, when Canada closed the border to US bees, in order to prevent the importation of damaging honey bee pests including mites and the so-called African bees. Canadian beekeepers had to go back to the old ways of over-wintering bees. As a matter of fact, they have gotten very good at it. The hives are reduced in size and moved with forklifts into cold storage facilities, often repurposed barns designed for storing potatoes. No, the bees don’t need to be warm in winter, they just need to be protected from the very low temperatures, and more importantly, from steep temperature fluctuations which occur when they are housed out of doors.
Since 2006, there have been countless news reports on the demise of the honey bee, the danger to our food supply, and so on. What is usually left out of these scare stories is the resiliency of this industry. Despite higher winter losses, attributable chiefly to the parasites that the border closure attempt to keep out, honey production in Canada is up, and the number beekeepers in Canada is on the rise.
So, the problem must be worse in the US, since that’s the focus of most of the stories. Are there shortages of bees in the US? In February of each year, the largest expanse of almond trees in the world comes into bloom in the Central Valley of California. There are simply not enough bee hives in the valley to pollinate all these trees at the recommended rate of one hive per acre. In fact, there aren’t enough available hives in the whole state; many beekeepers simply are not equipped to move their hives long distances. The solution has been to assembled up to a million and a half colonies from all over the US, to be rented for pollination at ever higher prices. Renting bees has become a major source of income for beekeepers who can truck their hives, far more certain than trying to produce a honey crop, which depends on the vagaries of weather, and can fail to be profitable when global honey prices sag.
As we can see, the beekeeping industry has always had to contend with losses, due to weather, parasites, and sometimes careless application of pesticides. Yet, despite this, the actual number of bee colonies have been steady for decades and is even rising in some areas. The need for pollination in the almond industry is acute, but this is a luxury crop, not a staple. The national food supply is not in danger, not by a long shot.