That Big Rig You're Passing Might Just Be Full of Bees

Jalopnik By Andrew P. Collins June 25, 2019

Illustration: GMG Art Department/Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

Illustration: GMG Art Department/Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

There are still cowboys driving livestock across America in 2019. While most of us are snoozing, they’re rolling up to dark fields with trucks full of creatures that are critical to our nation’s agriculture: thousands and thousands of bees.

“Very few people know that this happens, and it happens as a necessity of the way our agriculture’s done,” Apiarist and filmmaker Peter Nelson explained to me. “I see bee trucks when I’m on the road, but most people don’t recognize them because it looks like a truck with boxes covered by a net.”

Nelson’s new movie The Pollinators is all about the bee industry, its huge role in our food system and the dire situation it’s in today. After months embedded with beekeepers documenting the complicated logistics of hauling bees from one end of the country to another, and years raising bees in his own backyard, he’s become something of an authority on the subject.

After watching his film myself, I have a whole new appreciation for this fascinating biological and economic ecosystem. I will now impart some of this wonder to you, before getting back to the part about trucks filled with bees driving down the highway at night.

Bees: We Fear Them, But We Must Love Them (Or We Starve)

Crops that make some of our favorite foods—almonds, broccoli, blueberries, avocados, apples—all need to be pollinated, and they’re pollinated by bees. But it takes armies of the insects to tend the immense commercial farms that get those foods to grocery stores. Since pollination only happens in certain seasons, it’s not practical for most farmers to stock and feed their own bees year-round. There definitely aren’t enough wild bees to get it done. And that’s why we’ve got a bee industry.

Photo: Peter Nelson ( The Pollinators )

Photo: Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

Wild and farm-raised bees have slightly different lifestyles, but they have a lot of the same problems. Wild bees have to contend with their feeding grounds being paved and plowed for crops they can’t eat. Bees that work for humans for a living are at risk of being poisoned by pesticides designed to protect the plants that the bees are hired to pollinate. And all of them can succumb to parasitic varroa mites. These are tiny bugs that ride on bees and drink their blood, identified by the USDA as one of a bee’s biggest threats.

The importance of both natural and commercial pollination is well documented, as are the threats to their systems. If you want to dive deeper into the science of the situation, The Center for Biological Diversity’s paper Pollinators In Peril from 2017 might be a good place to start.

More recently, the plight of pollinators is starting to sneak its way into pop culture. Even PornHub is using its platform to make people realize how important bees are. But to truly appreciate what’s happening, you’ve got to wrap your head around the scale and significance of the bee industry.

Why Are We Trucking Bees Around, Exactly?

There are more than 90 million almond trees in California. They need to be pollinated every year, and it takes over 31 billion bees to make that happen.

Since there aren’t enough natural pollinators to take care of today’s commercial crops, just like there’s not enough rain to water them without the help of irrigation, the rental bees are brought in. Those same bees could get booked in every other corner of the country too, pollinating different crops in different seasons.

Photo: Peter Nelson ( The Pollinators )

Photo: Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

After almond season, the bees might get shipped up to the pacific northwest for apples. Then Massachusetts for cranberries, Maine for blueberries, or, some go to North and South Dakota to relax and focus on making honey, as highlighted by an article in The Conversation that notes many beekeepers are based there.

Nelson told me there are approximately 2,000 beekeepers with “more than 300 hives,” which he also explained was about the threshold from where a hobbyist or sideliner beekeeper becomes a serious commercial player. “The biggest beekeeper in the country is about 100,000 hives,” he added.

And how many bees does that entail? The typical hives Nelson had seen tended to house about 25,0000 bees. But bee colonies expand and contract over the course of a year. An Oregon State University paper cited by GrowOrganic stated that you could have between 10,000 and 60,000 bees living together.

If bees are comfortable, they can multiply fast. A typical worker bee only lives for about 40 days, but population growth can be fast in the right conditions. A queen can lay up to 1,500 eggs a day when the environment is optimized. So a beekeeper renting hives to farmers could be working with many generations of the insects, at the same hive, over the course of a year.

Photo: Peter Nelson ( The Pollinators )

Photo: Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

Today beekeepers at big scale make most of their money from pollination services, as opposed to 20 years ago, Nelson told me, when honey production was more lucrative. But as farms expanded and natural bee habitats have contracted, the demand for rental bees has gone up.

Pollination fees vary. “Last year ranged from $175 to $225 per hive for almond pollination,” said Nelson. “And that’s the biggest pollination in the country. Honeybees are essential to almonds, so they command a higher price.”

Almond crops need two hives per acre to be pollinated completely, so the dollar figure starts to swell pretty quickly. The Center for Biological Diversity says “more than $3 billion dollars” changes hands for fruit-pollination services in the U.S. every year.

And yet, sometimes commercial beekeeping business relationships are pretty old-school. “a lot of these contracts or agreements are made on a handshake,” Nelson explained. “Dave Hackenberg, [well-known professional beekeeper, credited as the first to raise awareness about colony collapse disorder] he’s been keeping bees my whole life, and he has some of his regular clients that go back 30 years.”

OK, So Here’s How You Haul Bees

Bees are considered livestock, so people charged with moving them are supposed to be comfortable working with animals. Still, transporting bees presents some unique challenges. Like, if you stop on a warm day, your cargo might just buzz away. That, or get trapped in the net covering the truck’s cargo deck, and that’s just a bad day for everybody.

Photo: Peter Nelson ( The Pollinators )

Photo: Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

If a bee truck crashes, “it’s a mess,” Nelson told me. It happens, and when it does, beekeepers will try to save their wares. If the queen bee stays in the hive, which they normally do, the rest of the bees will buzz back. But the insects can only get back to their hive if it’s in the same place they left it. If a cleanup crew has to move the hives, or replace them, rounding up all the loose bees can be impossible.

Most bee hauling runs don’t end in that kind of disaster, but they are a lot of work. Let’s say a big rig’s worth of bees need to get from Georgia to California early in the year, for the start of the almond season.

Bees are generally loaded up for transportation at nighttime. That’s partially because the cold slows them down, but mainly on account of that geolocation phenomenon I just mentioned. If the bees go to bed in one place and wake up in another, they apparently don’t care, and go about their business pollinating in the new spot. But if you move the hive while the bees are active, they get confused and lost.

Photo: Peter Nelson ( The Pollinators )

Photo: Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

Before being heaved onto the deck of an empty flatbed trailer, bees are often calmed down with smoke. (Bees: They’re just like us!) The trick is that beekeepers go around their hives with smoke-dispensing canisters to make the insects think there’s a forest fire.

You might imagine that would send them into an apocalyptic panic, but apparently it has the opposite effect. Kind of. The bees gorge themselves on honey, either in preparation for evacuation or just resignation that doomsday is near, and become significantly more docile than they usually are.

Smoke also “blocks pheromones and makes it harder for them to sting,” says Nelson.

With the bees toked out, about 400 to 425 palletized hives can be stacked onto a semi-truck trailer with a forklift. Multiply that by 25,000 bees per hive, and yeah, you could have more than 10,000,000 on a truck easily.

Once the bees are rolling, their humans like to keep them in motion as much as possible during the day since the wind discourages them from going outside. If beekeepers do have to stop, they try to do it at high elevation where it’s cooler and bees will be more motivated to stay indoors. Once again, I am realizing how bee-like my own existence is... I don’t like to leave the house unless the weather’s soft, either. Also, if my house moved I would definitely get lost.

Photo: Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

Photo: Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

Speaking of weather, that’s the last, and most critical, factor bee haulers have to worry about. If it’s too warm, the bees will escape and die. If it’s too cold, the bees will die. If it rains or snows, that presents its own set of problems.

“The thing that they’re all watching is weather... The almond pollination, that’s probably the riskiest one,” Nelson explained, “because a lot of the distances they cover are long. From Florida, Georgia, Alabama, all the way to Central Valley, California. And then also because of the weather that time of year (January and February) is a little more volatile.”

Beekeepers will even pre-run their hauling routes, just like Baja racers, to scout good spots to stop and plan their pacing. “A lot of beekeepers will go these exact routes beforehand,” Nelson added, “so they’ll know places where, ‘OK if you need to pull off, this is a good place, because it has an elevation that’s a little bit higher, so it might be cooler and better for the bees to stay in the hive,’” for example.

A 2018 Agweek article cited Miller Honey Farms Vice President Jason Miller as stating his companies hives “lose about two percent of their bees each time they’re moved,” and also mentioned that bee farmers sometimes have to get creative when it comes to finding places to park the bees in down time. The Miller operation apparently rents potato cellars in Idaho as their bees’ winter home.

Photo: Peter Nelson ( The Pollinators )

Photo: Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

But even if beekeepers manage to keep their bees alive through the cold months, and get them on-and-off trucks safely, they still have to deal with bee bandits.

Yes, beehive theft is a thing. National Geographic recently reported that $70,000 worth of buzzing gold (bees) was heisted from a California farm. In 2016, somebody made off with $200,000 worth of bees in Canada and similar crimes have happened in England, New Zealand and elsewhere.

In the U.S., California’s Rural Crime Prevention Task Force deals with this kind of thing. “These cases are hard to crack because bees don’t have VIN numbers like cars, and we can’t track them by their DNA,” Detective Isaac Torres of the Task Force is quoted saying in that Nat Geo article. But stolen bees do get found, and the California State Beekeepers Association apparently “offers a $10,000 reward for information resulting in the arrest and conviction of a bee rustler.”

How Do We Befriend The Bees, And Earn Their Trust And Respect?

If you’ve read this far, you’ve got an understanding of how hard bees and their keepers have it. Some even say forcing bees to work for us at all is exploitive and wrong. But short of trying to topple the bee industry, it is possible for people to proactively be part of a pollination solution.

Photo: Peter Nelson ( The Pollinators )

Photo: Peter Nelson (The Pollinators)

“One of things I like to suggest to people is to support their local beekeepers,” Nelson told me when I asked him how I could help the bees. “Buy[ing] honey locally, certainly buy[ing] U.S. honey,” helps our bee economy, but planning a garden that’s pollinator-friendly if you have the space for it, and minimizing the use of pesticides around your house goes a long way too.

Not all pollinating bees are honeybees that can fly five miles or get carted thousands of miles across the country. Some local pollinators might just hang out in your yard.

Making good food choices, as in buying food that’s pollinated sustainably, can be difficult to do. It’s a very positive step in helping the environment, though. And now that you know that, you might have some more research to do. But at least, next time you see a truck with stacks of boxes covered by a net, you’ll know what it’s up to!

For a longer look at the life of bees on the road and the people making a lot of your food happen, you really should try to see The Pollinators movie, which you might be able to catch at a film festival soon.

https://jalopnik.com/that-big-rig-youre-passing-might-be-full-of-bees-1834383949

Two Great Podcasts Today And Tomorrow, And Only 2 Of The 5 For Pollinator Week. Migratory Beekeeper Davey Hackenberg And Bloomberg’s Business Of Bees, With Adam Arlington

Catch The Buzz June 18, 2019

Pollinator Week: Davey Hackenberg – Commercial Beekeeper


Davey Hackenberg.jpg

Davey Hackenberg is a second-generation of beekeeper following in the steps of his father, Dave Hackenberg, in the honey and pollination business. Davey lives in Lewisberg, PA where he and his family run Hackenberg Honey, home of Buffy Bee Honey!

In this candid interview, Davey talks openly about the year-round challenges he and other pollinators face as they travel the country taking their bees to crops and orchards. If you want to become a pollinator or dream about walking away from your office job to become a full-time beekeeper, you just might want to listen to this Beekeeping Today Podcast to hear the good and the bad, the past and a glimpse of the future the commercial beekeeper. Keeping your business ‘sideline’ may be your best bet!

Davey is also featured in Peter Nelson’s The Pollinators movie. Jeff & Kim talk with Peter in Beekeeping Today Podcast (#022).

Pollinator Week: Adam Allington – The Business of Bees

Bloomberg Environment.jpg

Adam Allington is the producer and host of the Bloomberg Environment podcast, The Business of Bees.  Adam joins Jeff and Kim on this podcast of the 2019 Pollinator Week series.

Business of Bees is a six-part podcast series that introduces the listener to the business though in voices of those in the industry, including several you’ve heard here (John Miller, BTP #002and Dr. Samuel Ramsey, BTP #015).

Adam’s series is a easy to listen to, high quality podcast that represents the pros and cons to the business, including how honey bees helps to pollinate the nation’s crops. The series also touches on the debate of honey bees vs. native pollinators.

The Business of Bees is available wherever you listen to or download your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts.

Websites and links mention in the podcast:

https://www.beeculture.com/catch-the-buzz-two-great-podcasts-today-and-tomorrow

The Super Bowl Of Beekeeping

The New York Times     By Jaime Lowe     August 15, 2018

Almond growing in California is a $7.6 billion industry that wouldn’t be possible without the 30 billion bees (and hundreds of human beekeepers) who keep the trees pollinated — and whose very existence is in peril.

Will Nissen’s bees north of Bakersfield, Calif. Credit Ilona Szwarc for The New York Times

Every February, white petals blanket first the almond trees, then the floor of the central valley, an 18,000-square-mile expanse of California that begins at the stretch of highway known as the Grapevine just south of Bakersfield and reaches north to the foothills of the Cascades. The blooms represent the beginning of the valley’s growing season each year: Almond trees are first to bud, flower and fruit. At the base of the trunks sit splintered boxes — some marked with numbers, some with names, some with insignias — stacked two boxes high on a wooden pallet that fits four stacks. Inside the boxes are bees, dancing in circles and figure-eights and sometimes just waggling. With almond season comes bee season. Everyone in the valley knows when it’s bee season. There are bee-specific truckers; motels occupied by seasonal workers; annual dinners to welcome the out-of-towners; weathered pickups with license plates from Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Florida parked in front of orchards at all hours of the night. And those ubiquitous boxes.

This year the beekeepers responsible for those bees gathered on a mid-February Saturday for a potluck lunch at a community center in Kerman, a small town of ranch houses wreathed by acres upon acres of almond orchards. The meeting was supposed to kick off the pollinating season, but the beekeepers, many of them wearing tucked-in plaid shirts and trucker caps with dirt-curled bills, had already been at work for a couple of weeks, summoned to the state early by a heat wave. The sun beckoned the blossoms, and the blossoms begged for the bees. Farmers have a window of just a few weeks when pollination has to happen, otherwise the nuts won’t set, which is what it’s called when blossoms are pollinated and kernels emerge. When the nuts don’t set, much of a crop can be lost. By the time of the potluck, it seemed as if the season were already at its midpoint.

The beekeepers lined up to fill their paper plates with pork chops, baked beans, chicken, rice, salad and three different kinds of cake. Teri Solomon, the organizer of the event and a longtime local beekeeper, collected $10 each for lunch. A list of speakers was taped to the table where she sat — respected beekeepers, bee brokers, scientists, a Fresno County sheriff’s police detective and a rep from the Almond Board of California. Topics of the day included the steady growth of the almond industry, the science of pollination, agricultural theft (hence the cop) and the ever-more-imperiled state of honeybees. That last item carried the most weight with the crowd, as they were all struggling to maintain the vast numbers of bees needed for almond pollination. Bees are central to an enormous agricultural industry — about one of every three mouthfuls of food we eat wouldn’t exist without bee pollination — and beekeepers’ custodianship of billions of these delicate animals is as much an art as it is a science. Beekeepers themselves, Solomon confided, are funny creatures: solitary in the field, trying to anticipate the needs of a finicky insect and, unlike that insect, social only once in a while. “We’re an odd bunch, very individualistic in nature,” she said. “But we’re in trouble.”

Honeybees on a removable frame from a bee box in the Central Valley. Credit Ilona Szwarc for The New York TimesMostly the beekeepers and bee brokers — the agents who negotiate contracts between beekeepers and farmers — were trying to get a sense from one another of how badly bee populations had been hit, how much each was charging per hive and how much they could increase that price for the next season. There was talk of disease, pesticides, drought, floods, suburban sprawl, parasites. They talked shop: Which menthol strips are you using to inoculate your bees? How often do you change the treatment-laced pad placed in the hive to keep your bees healthy? Are the wafers or quick strips more effective for mites? Where do you apply them in the box, and for how long? Does the medication affect the performance of the bees? Can you get rid of a mite infestation, or are preventive measures the only option?

About 10 years ago, the nation was seized with alarm when a Pennsylvania beekeeper lost 90 percent of his bees. He found that entire colonies had abandoned their queen. Losses like this were reported across North America and in Europe, but no one knows exactly what caused the die-off that came to be called colony-collapse disorder (C.C.D.). There hasn’t been a reported case of C.C.D. in years, but bee populations within colonies are still declining, and many scientists point to parasites as the cause. Since 2006, annual winter losses in colonies have averaged more than 28 percent, nearly double the historical winter mortality rate of 15 percent; in 2015, the U.S.D.A. reported more losses in the previous summer than the winter for the first time ever. According to Gene Brandi, a former president of the American Beekeeping Federation, the current plight of the bee population can be summed up in the four P’s: parasites, pathogens, pesticides and poor nutrition.

Pollination is a migratory practice now — more than two-thirds of America’s honeybees are mobilized for pollinating almond trees, and most come from out-of-state apiaries. One slide from the Almond Board rep showed the path of beekeepers who transport their colonies in semi-trucks around the nation seasonally — bees winter in Texas and Florida, head to California for almonds, then often summer in cooler states like North and South Dakota, where beekeepers will rebuild their colonies by splitting hives and feeding their bees manufactured protein patties and natural forage. The Midwest used to provide weeds, wildflowers and alfalfa for native and domesticated bees alike, but in the last couple of decades much of this food source has disappeared. Drought and suburban sprawl leave beekeepers with less open acreage for their bees to forage.

Last year, climate-intensified hurricanes and flooding along the Gulf Coast destroyed entire apiaries; they drowned blooms in Florida and led to the starvation of thousands of bees; wildfires in Santa Barbara and Ventura, Calif., killed more. And beekeepers need to worry not only about keeping their charges alive but also about keeping them from being stolen. Last year, just a few miles from Kerman, two men were arrested in association with what may be the largest bee heist ever, a three-year crime spree that added up to nearly a million dollars’ worth of stolen bees. A preliminary hearing is set for November. When one defendant was caught at a local bee yard with stolen boxes, local newspapers and major media outlets had fun with the bee heist, lacing copy with inevitable puns about sting operations. But the reality for beekeepers and bees is much more grave.

The worst of the woes is the Varroa mite, a pest that was identified in the mid-’80s. The mite has become increasingly associated with the spread of viruses, including deformed-wing virus. The size of a poppy seed, this parasite sucks blood from both adults and developing broods. Varroa leaves bees in a zombie state, unable to navigate.

Lyle Johnston, a Colorado-based beekeeper and bee broker, at an almond orchard in California. ‘‘A lot of guys go through hard times, get their butts kicked,’’ he said. Credit Ilona Szwarc for The New York TimesLyle Johnston, a beekeeper and broker based in Colorado, described his methods for keeping colonies healthy: Feed them protein patties to make up for the lack of forage, and place menthol strips in the brood chamber in early fall to stave off mites. And always reserve some of the honey that bees produce to feed them come winter. He learned that last tip in the early ’90s from Joe Traynor, a bee broker based in Bakersfield, who has been renting bees since 1959. The audience sat rapt. While most of Johnston’s peers were losing 40 percent of their bees every season, Johnston said he was losing only 10 percent. “Until you have a mite collapse and your bees actually go down, you don’t really learn how to treat for mites,” he said. “A lot of guys go through hard times, get their butts kicked” — losing thousands of colonies, sometimes all their bees.

“If cattlemen lost 50 percent of their cows, you know people would do something and react,” Chris Hiatt, vice president of the American Honey Producers Association, told me. “But since it’s bees and everyone thinks we can just breed more, nothing’s done. No one appreciates the stress we’re under.”

Domesticated honeybees and agriculture have been tethered to each other for millenniums. Egyptians floated hives up and down the Nile to pollinate flowers. Some honey jars were even found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Highly refined apiculture techniques existed in prehistoric Greece, Israel, ancient China and Mayan civilizations. When colonists came to the New World, they brought bees in straw hives. When pioneers traveled west on the prairie, bees accompanied them in covered wagons. The biggest break in modern beekeeping came in the mid-19th century with the invention of a portable hive by Lorenzo Langstroth, a clergyman and apiarist. The bee box, with its suspended files of removable honeycomb, was so effective that its design has barely changed in all the years since. Langstroth allowed space for bees between and around combs — he calculated the optimal gap to be about three-eighths of an inch wide; less space is sealed with propolis and wax, while wider gaps are filled with comb. The box made it possible to move great distances with thousands of bees. Bees traveled by steamboat and rail, and once the Model T was invented, they were trucked from orchard to pasture and back again.

Frames of honeycomb in a portable hive. Since 2006, annual winter losses in bee colonies have averaged more than 28 percent. Credit Ilona Szwarc for The New York TimesNow they’re transported to Florida to pollinate watermelons, to Washington State for cherries or apples, to Maine for blueberries. And to California for almonds — the largest managed pollination event in the world. California grows more than 80 percent of the world’s almond supply. In 2014, the almond industry contributed $7.6 billion to California’s economy and was responsible for more than 100,000 jobs. A record total of 1.3 million acres in the state were devoted to almond production last year, an increase of 7 percent from the previous year.

The almond industry’s bullish expansion is not without controversy. It takes one gallon of water to produce a single almond; almond cultivation requires water year-round in a state where residential water usage has been restricted and some rural communities don’t have clean water at all.

On a hot February afternoon in Chowchilla, about 45 minutes north of Fresno, Johnston pulled up to an orchard in bloom. The trees appeared from afar to be still, but they were in fact vibrating with activity. “The almond pollination is the Super Bowl of beekeeping,” Johnston told me. His family has been in the bee business for 110 years. For decades, Johnston Honey Farms was primarily a business that sold honey. “I’d rather just do honey; it’d be a lot less stress,” he said. “We had to find another way to generate revenue. When I first started in the ’80s, we were probably 80 percent honey, 20 percent pollination, and now it’s the opposite.” In recent years, American beekeepers have been finding it increasingly difficult to compete against cheaper honey from China. As a result, most beekeepers turn to pollination events — especially the almond season — to make ends meet.

Many beekeeping operations are, like Johnston’s, third- and fourth-generation businesses. Johnston always knew he would be a beekeeper — on his first day of school, he left during recess to go home and tend to the bees. “Dad had Mom take me right back to school, but there was no question I was always going to work in bees.”

Beekeepers refilling sugar syrup (honey bee feed) on an almond orchard near Madera, Calif.CreditIlona Szwarc for The New York TimesAt 6-foot-5, Johnston towers over his hives, and he is scientific when it comes to his bees. He is beholden to his tiny insects, his mood dictated by their moods. Today they were happy, so he was happy. The bees, coated in pollen, flew from branch to hive and back again, with full pollen baskets, the part of the insect’s legs where they store loads for their brood. The bees clustered at the bottom of each box, pushing to deposit their pollen into a cell where larvae would eventually emerge, expanding the colony’s population. Johnston burned wood pellets in a gunny sack to work up mesquite smoke to pacify the bees, then pulled a frame out of one of his boxes. His bees looked fat and healthy and boisterous. A good beekeeper can immediately tell when a hive is unhealthy: The bees push to the outer edges of the frame as if they’re trying to escape.

As one of the biggest brokers in the nation, Johnston was running 73,000 hives with a rental value of roughly $14 million per year, distributed among his 22 beekeepers. According to the U.S.D.A.’s Cost of Pollination Survey, an annual tracking of honeybee health and pollination costs that started in 2016, 1.7 million colonies were used to pollinate almond trees in 2016; an estimated two million colonies were needed in 2018. “If almonds went down, we wouldn’t be running bees,” Johnston said — meaning the financial incentive of the pollination event would disappear. “The population of bees would change; it would drop by around a million hives.”

Honeybees used for managed pollination are domesticated; they are actually considered by a number of states to be livestock. Without their human keepers, honeybees might have faced extinction decades ago, as some of their native counterparts are beginning to now. Three bumblebees are believed to have gone extinct already: Bombus rubriventris, Bombus melanopoda and Bombus franklini; the rusty-patched bumblebee was listed under the Endangered Species Act just last year. The threat to both managed and wild bees is considered serious enough that in 2015 President Barack Obama established a task force to promote the health of honeybees. Its report called upon the Department of Agriculture to track honeybee-colony loss and to restore millions of acres of land to pollinator habitat.

At the potluck lunch, the Almond Board rep passed along a U.S.D.A. forecast that by 2020, 300,000 additional acres of almond trees would be blooming. Johnston said: “They’ve tripled the acreage since I started, and I remember an old-time grower telling me this thing is all going to go down; when they get to 400,000 or 500,000 acres, this thing is going to collapse like a crater. He was totally wrong: They blew right past that, and they’re going for more.” The problem is that there aren’t enough healthy bees to accommodate the growth of the almond industry.

A beekeeper in an almond orchard in California’s Central Valley. Ilona Szwarc for The New York TimesHives north of Bakersfield, where bees are trucked in for the largest managed pollination event in the world: the annual pollinating of California’s almond groves. Ilona Szwarc for The New York Times

On a dry-erase board in an office in the back of a lab lined with experimental patches of wildflowers in the entomology department of U.C. Davis, the professor and researcher Neal Williams explained what he teaches to his undergraduate and graduate students and what he has found through decades of research. Pollinators can produce crops in a variety of ways — and sometimes, obviously, as nature intended, just by showing up. “Some of the work we’ve done is to determine whether some combination of wild bees with honeybees improves overall pollination,” Williams said. “If there is a synergy. If you want more pollination, you either need more bees or you need to make them better.” Williams found that planting wildflowers increases pollination in two ways: It attracts native pollinators, which create competition in managed honeybees, and the wildflowers vary bees’ nutritional intake. Several years ago, Williams conducted a study that monitored populations of bees for two consecutive seasons when growers planted wildflowers on the borders of their orchards. The results established that the wildflowers had not distracted honeybees from almond pollination.

Farmers have worried that flowering plants compete for pollination with almond blossoms, so they’re reluctant to allow for any other plantings. The bases of almond trees are usually stripped clean, with mounds of bare soil protecting the roots. To persuade growers to adopt new techniques, Williams and a colleague developed an algorithm to determine the exact cost-effective plants to suit the specific needs of each crop. But almond growers are reluctant to change standard practices, especially when there’s financial risk involved.

Agricultural entities — including California’s Almond Board — pour money into pollinator research, but they are simultaneously anticipating the end of bees. There was talk in Kerman about a new variety of almond tree that is self-pollinating. One almond grower and distributor said a lot of new orchards were buying the self-pollinating plants, but no one could tell if the trees were actually self-pollinating or if the bees from neighboring orchards were slipping into their blooms. Either way, the same farmer added, the almonds tasted bad, and he wouldn't be planting them anytime soon. Outside the ag labs, extreme measures to address the apocalyptic world-without-bees scenario include the deployment, in China, of armies of workers to hand-pollinate crops. In March, Walmart filed a patent application for a drone pollinator. “Robot bees would be a major challenge,” said Nigel Raine, a University of Guelph pollinator researcher. “I would be really nervous about putting our faith in robot bees.”

Driving outside Bakersfield, Will Nissen of Five Star Honey Farms pointed out the orchards owned by the Mormon Church, the Wonderful Company and retirement and investment funds. Then he pointed to his colorful and branded boxes at the base of almond trees. It was the end of the day, and his bees were all heading to the hives for the night. After releasing a plume of smoke, he pulled open one of their roofs (“You’d be angry too, if someone took the roof off your house!”) — then delicately exposed a hanging frame. Nissen showed me the filled honeycomb where larvae would start poking through, workers waggling and the queen, bigger and colored a deeper orange than her drones. After almond season, Nissen and his wife, Peggy, would spend several months breeding queens for future broods. He asked if I’d ever tasted fresh honey and handed me a chunk of wax with liquid dripping from the sides. I could taste the pollen, a texture like dust, and then the honey. I couldn’t tell if the honey tasted like almonds or if almonds taste like bees.

Randy Verhoek, former president of the American Honey Producers Association, in an almond orchard near Madera, Calif. Credit Ilona Szwarc for The New York Times

Nissen had been deployed by his broker, Joe Traynor, who was too busy during bee season to leave his office. For the first few months of every year, Traynor, 82, sends a flurry of emails to a list of all the beekeepers and brokers and scientists he has encountered — updates, research reports, weather forecasts and long-winded exchanges about the nature of bees. Sometimes he’ll forward a poem — like the one he sent after frost threatened this year’s crop written from the perspective of a farmer praying for rain and debating suicide. Traynor studied agriculture at U.C. Davis and by his own admission wasn’t a great student. “I got a C in economics at U.C.D. — all I learned was the law of supply and demand,” he said. Now, after nearly 50 years of renting bees, the demand is wearing on him. He barely sleeps during almond season and spent hours creating aerial crop maps, color-coded to indicate which acres he’s responsible for pollinating.

At his office in downtown Bakersfield, Traynor shared his collection of bee research and theories on pollination. The hallway to his office was shedding paint; on his door, a simple brass plate read “Scientific Ag Co.,” as if he were a private investigator. Inside the office — where he catches whatever sleep he can during the season — files, books and papers were stacked on every conceivable surface. Traynor’s shy, studied demeanor shifts at the mention of bees. He becomes laser-focused. Every year, he gets the same anxiety about whether he’ll have enough bees for his growers, whether his bees will perform, whether the almonds will set and how fast he can get the boxes out of the fields before farmers start working their crops with pesticides. There is a lot of tension between beekeepers and growers about timing. Once blooms are pollinated, growers will start spraying their orchards, and bees have to be removed quickly.

That night 130 people gathered at the annual beekeepers’ dinner Traynor hosts with Mike Mulligan, another area bee broker. A sudden frost had set in, and they stood around open-pit fires at Mulligan’s house, adjacent to an almond orchard. Beekeepers and brokers and scientists talked about the same issues discussed at the meeting in Kerman a week earlier. How do we treat hives for Varroa mites? What do we do to feed our bees when there’s no forage? How do we keep up with pollination? How can we raise prices if the frost affects almonds? How do we continue on as beekeepers without going broke? All the questions added up to one big question that hovers over every meeting and every dinner and every potluck: What is the future of bees?

Mulligan stood in front of the crowd to say a prayer for friends and for the season. He talked about how at the beginning of pollination he was worried he would be short a thousand hives. “The bees aren’t looking good, the weather is lousy, we just have to cancel,” one of his beekeepers called and told him from Texas. Mulligan reminded himself of a passage from Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Within a couple of days, he made up the loss with last-minute hives from local keepers whose plans had fallen through and who needed to place their bees. Many other beekeepers short on hives did not have the same luck.

Each year the beekeepers compare notes on whether to raise prices for pollination in the coming season — a decision that might depend on drought or frost or how big the almond crop would be. But one thing they didn’t anticipate, back at that dinner in February, was a tariff war. Beekeepers are now negotiating contracts with almond growers for next season. This season’s yield, which will be harvested in September, is projected to be a record crop. But trade disputes that have been initiated by the Trump administration are likely to affect most large-scale nut distributors, because both China and Europe are major buyers. If President Trump’s policies are carried out, almonds sold to China will be subjected to an additional 15 percent retaliatory tariff starting Aug. 23.

“Beekeepers are pushed into the margins,” said Randy Verhoek, former president of the American Honey Producers Association. “We’re doing things we never imagined would even be a factor in beekeeping. We’re just trying to do everything we can to keep them healthy, because there’s nowhere to go. Where are we going to go?” Verhoek, a migratory beekeeper based in Texas, has dealt with one almond grower in California for 17 years. This past season, he dropped 9,000 hives on 4,000 or so acres. He’ll gross $1.4 million from pollinating almonds, but when I asked him about profits, he said, “Well, that’s the problem with beekeepers; we don’t crunch the numbers. We just put everything back in the business and hope we’ll be here next year.”

Jaime Lowe is a frequent contributor to the magazine and the author of “Mental.” She previously wrote a feature about the incarcerated women who fight California wildfires.

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/15/magazine/the-super-bowl-of-beekeeping.html

After Massive Bee Kill, Beekeepers Want Answers From Fresno County

Capital Public Radio / News     By Julia Metric    May 16, 2017

Dead bees in Reedley, CA from colonies belonging to Rafael Reynaga. (Photo courtesy of Rafael Reynaga.) 

The Beekeeper

When Rafael Reynaga came to check on his bee colonies in a Fresno almond orchard, he found a carpet full of dead bees on the ground.

Reynaga picked up a hive and found two inches of bees at the bottom. He says most were dead, but a few were still moving.

Dead bees reek, Reynaga says, like a dead rat.

He's been working with bees since the 1980s but he says he'd never experienced a bee kill firsthand until this February.

He'd lent two hundred hives to his brother, fellow beekeeper Raul Reynaga. The latter had a pollination contract with an almond grower in Reedley on the east side of Fresno. 

He suspects his honeybees died from pesticide exposure.

“The bees act in a specific way when they are poisoned,” adds Reynaga. “They fly in circles close to the ground.”

Apiarist Rafael Reynaga checks bee colonies in Tulare County

To Reynaga these bee deaths point to a pesticide spray to blooming crops. But he says his hives went in before the almond bloom. The closest blooming crop were nectarines.

Reynaga filed a "Report of Loss” with the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner’s office. He says it’s a big hit to his business - a $100,000 loss.

Protecting The Bees

Almond pollination is the busiest time of year for California’s commercial beekeepers. They scramble around the state as they move their colonies into orchards just ahead of the bloom.

Gene Brandi is president of the American Beekeeping Federation and a longtime beekeeper from Madera.

Brandi says he works with fifteen different growers across the state during pollination. It’s a logistical feat to move thousands of hives into place just before almond bloom while weather changes hour by hour. Keeping the bees healthy and safe is a huge priority.

During pollination, some beekeepers rely on a notification system to find out about pesticide applications close to their hives.

Here’s how the notification system works in Fresno County. Beekeepers can register the location of hives as they place them for pollination. It’s voluntary. The county pins those locations to a digital bee map.

This interactive map shows approximate bee locations in Fresno County. (Credit: County of Fresno)

Growers, or the pesticide applicators they work with, must file a "Notice of Intent" with the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner if they plan to apply anything toxic to bees according to the label. 

The county has 16 hours to check the spray location against the bee map and reply to the grower (or pesticide applicator) with contact details for anyone with registered hives within a one mile radius.

The last step: the grower (or pesticide applicator) is required to message registered beekeepers with a heads-up 48 hours ahead of the spray application.

Some beekeepers choose to register their hives and receive notification, but many do not, according to the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner's office. They say several beekeepers in the bee kill areas were not registered for February pollination.

Gene Brandi says he registers his hives with the county. It’s a valuable source of information.

But here’s the catch. Brandi says the notification system is not the main safeguard in protecting honeybees from pesticide exposure.

It’s the label.

The Label Is The Law

Just because a beekeeper gets a phone or email notification about a pesticide application does not mean they’ll move their bees out, explains Gene Brandi.

The bees are in the almond orchards to do a job - pollination. “We can’t move them out until it’s done,” says Brandi.

In California, protection for honey bees comes in the form of bee warnings on specific pesticide labels.  Carzol SP insecticide bee warning label

The label is the law. That means regardless of where hives are registered, growers (and pesticide applicators on staff) are required to follow the label’s language.

Brandi is confident growers, pesticide applicators, beekeepers and county ag officials all understand following the label to mean: only apply these pesticides at night, when honey bees are not working.

Brandi is counting on the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner to get to the bottom of what caused the bee kills in February. Regardless of the cause, he says, “This shouldn’t have happened.”

For Brandi, seeing pictures of Reynaga’s dead bees from Reedley brought back unwelcome memories of a bee kill his brother experienced decades ago.

“You can see it’s more than a claim,” says Brandi.

“It’s losses they have experienced. It’s real. And it’s a major negative economic impact on their businesses and on the growers, too. The growers are paying for good bees and they got these dead ones that aren’t going to pollinate one nut.”

Brandi says it’s key for the entire agriculture community to follow best practices so bees are protected while crops get treated.

The Almond Board of California adopted best management practices in 2014. Those include not applying insecticides during bloom and ensuring fungicides are applied late in the day and into the evening when bees are not out collecting pollen.

“Many growers have adopted these practices, but there are still quite a few that have not. They don’t have to. It’s strictly advisory,” explains Brandi.

Earlier this spring Brandi had a meeting at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC. Brandi urged them to take a closer look at the impact of popular tank mixes on the health of honey bee colonies and consider bee warning labels for them.

(A tank mix is a cocktail of pesticides in single tank.) 

"After all, tank mixes are what our bees 'see' in the field, not just individual pesticides," says Brandi. 

Brandi argues that even if a tank mix doesn't kill adult bees outright, it may impact the brood and hurt the bee colony longterm. 

According to Brandi, the acting head of the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs said the agency would look into tank mixes later this year.

The Investigation

There were several clusters of bee kills in Fresno this winter. They happened on the east side of Fresno County in Sanger and Reedley, where Rafael Reynaga’s colonies were.

The other area is Kerman, on the west side of the county, where loss reports from several beekeepers total in the ballpark of $2 million.

Tom Ullmann works for the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner’s office and he’s investigating the Kerman incident. On a tour of the Kerman area, he points out one spot where honeybee colonies got hit, between two vast almond orchards.

Tom Ullmann works for the Fresno County Department of Agriculture

The county collected bee bodies and swabs from outside the hives at this site and sent them to a lab at the California Department of Pesticide Regulation

As part of the investigation, Ullmann’s examined pesticide use reports in Kerman for the days leading up to the bee kill.

“So far, there’s nothing we’ve found that has been done that is in violation of any regulatory requirements according to the label,” says Ullmann.

In other words, pesticide applications were reportedly completed by midnight.

But the preliminary finding leaves bee broker Joe Traynor doubtful.

“I can’t totally blame the county,” Traynor says, “but they depend on use reports and those are only as good as the honesty of the guy that signs them, saying what he put on and what time of day he put it on. Anybody can fudge a use report.”

Traynor’s been wrangling bees for 50 years.

Think of the bee broker as the middleman for pollination. They gather bee hives from various beekeepers to fill contracts with growers. The bee broker gets a cut from both parties.

Traynor was the one who brought Rafael Reynaga’s hives to Reedley. Bee colonies Traynor put in Kerman also got hit. And, he says, bees he placed for pollination in Sanger orchards were hit even worse.

 Bee broker Joe Traynor, left, and beekeeper Rafael Reynaga in Tulare County.

To Traynor, the volume of dead bees and their location suggest exposure to a pesticide – the kind with a bee warning on the label. He suspects a spray was applied into the early morning hours.

Stace Leoni is Fresno County Deputy Agricultural Commissioner and she’s leading the bee kill investigation.

Leoni concedes that pesticide use reports, filed after the application occurs, rely on an honor system. But she doesn’t find it credible that pesticide applicators would intentionally break the rules.

“Why would you want to spend money on a product and apply it if it wasn’t going to work? Or do it at the wrong time or use too much?” asks Leoni.

In his search for answers, Traynor’s focused on the timing of the bee kill and what was going on nearby. He placed the hives in almond orchards before bloom, so there was no forage.

“But bees will visit nearby orchards up to two or three miles away to find bloom,” Traynor explains. He points to nearby blooming nectarines.

The county’s bee lab results are not yet available. But USDA lab reports show several insecticides in bee bodies and bee pollen from Kerman. One of them is Carzol. It’s commonly used by nectarine growers to control an insect called thrips. 

In both bee kill areas there are nectarines within three miles of almonds.

Leoni says the county’s preliminary finding is that a Carzol application to nearby nectarines was completed by midnight.

The county has come under vocal criticism from bee brokers, including Traynor, who say the county must do more to enforce night-time sprays for pesticides with bee warning labels.

“A lot of statements are being made that we don't care or that we're not turning over every stone to figure this out. That’s just not true,” Leoni says.

Leoni insists the county is looking into every possible cause of the February bee deaths. And she says the investigation takes time.

“We're doing the very best we can do because we don't want it to happen again,” explains Leoni.

“But we don't go out in the beginning with accusations. We ask questions. The whole point is to stay objective and try to figure out what happened.”

Leoni says it’s too early to say what lessons could come out of the bee kill. But she concedes that “some materials that are registered may need to be looked at again as far as their toxicity to bees.”

“It could be that the window (for spraying) has to be even shorter in the evening, that you have to finish six hours before the next time bees actively visit. Or maybe a lower dosage. I don’t know,” Leoni says.

Regenerating The Bee Colonies

Rafael Reynaga stands on a grassy mound nestled along the Fresno foothills. The fragrance of citrus blossom filters through the air. 

Citrus trees in Fresno County

This idyllic bee yard is where he brought his hives after the bee kill in Reedley. 

Reynaga cleaned out the stricken hives with bleach to remove possible contamination from dead bee bodies. Then he added brood from healthy colonies and a queen cell for each colony.

He put the bee boxes in their own spot where there’s plenty of forage from citrus bloom. It's like a bee sanctuary.

“I put them where they can thrive. Now, only time will tell,” says Reynaga as he looks out over the hives.

“I’m not going to make honey with these bees – they are just recovering. But at least I can rebuild the hive and put this thing behind me.”

Reynaga doubts he’ll put his bees in the Fresno County bee kill areas for almond pollination next year. “Even if I don’t put bees there again, I want this to stop,” says Reynaga.

“Because in the future, I don’t want this to happen to anybody else or me, down the road, in another place.”

At least six different beekeepers (or bee brokers) claimed losses of an estimated 8,000 bee hives in Fresno County.

Despite what happened in February, you can see from the green fuzzy nuts on almond trees that Fresno’s almond orchards were pollinated.

The county investigation is ongoing. It could be six months to a year before they issue a final report. 

Green nuts on almond trees in Fresno County

READ ARTICLE, LISTEN TO TWO RADIO BROADCASTS, AND LINK TO MORE RELATED STORIES: http://www.capradio.org/95104

 

To Save Honey Bees, Human Behavior Must Change

Science Daily    Source: Entomological Society of America    April 6, 2017

Poor management practices have enabled spread of bee pathogens, bee researcher argues

In the search for answers to the complex health problems and colony losses experienced by honey bees in recent years, it may be time for professionals and hobbyists in the beekeeping industry to look in the mirror.

In a research essay to be published this week in the Entomological Society of America's Journal of Economic Entomology, Robert Owen argues that human activity is a key driver in the spread of pathogens afflicting the European honey bee (Apis mellifera) -- the species primarily responsible for pollination and honey production around the world -- and recommends a series of collective actions necessary to stem their spread. While some research seeks a "magic bullet" solution to honeybee maladies such as Colony Collapse Disorder, "many of the problems are caused by human action and can only be mitigated by changes in human behavior," Owen says.

Owen is author of The Australian Beekeeping Handbook, owner of a beekeeping supply company, and a Ph.D. candidate at the Centre of Excellence for Biosecurity Risk Analysis (CEBRA) at the University of Melbourne. In his essay in the Journal of Economic Entomology, he outlines an array of human-driven factors that have enabled the spread of honey bee pathogens:

  • Regular, large-scale, and loosely regulated movement of bee colonies for commercial pollination. (For instance, in February 2016 alone, of the 2.66 million managed bee colonies in the United States, 1.8 million were transported to California for almond crop pollination.).
  • Carelessness in the application of integrated pest management principles leading to overuse of pesticides and antibiotics, resulting in increased resistance to them among honey bee parasites and pathogens such as the Varroa destructor mite and the American Foul Brood bacterium (Paenibacillus larvae),
  • The international trade in honey bees and honey bee products that has enabled the global spread of pathogens such as varroa destructor, tracheal mite (Acarapis woodi), Nosema cerana, Small Hive Beetle (Aethina tumida ), and the fungal disease chalkbrood (Ascosphaera apis).
  • Lack of skill or dedication among hobbyist beekeepers to adequately inspect and manage colonies for disease.

Owen offers several suggestions for changes in human behavior to improve honey bee health, including:

  • Stronger regulation both of global transport of honey bees and bee products and of migratory beekeeping practices within countries for commercial pollination.
  • Greater adherence to integrated pest management practices among both commercial and hobbyist beekeepers.
  • Increased education of beekeepers on pathogen management (perhaps requiring such education for registration as a beekeeper).
  • Deeper support networks for hobby beekeepers, aided by scientists, beekeeping associations, and government.

"The problems facing honeybees today are complex and will not be easy to mitigate," says Owen. "The role of inappropriate human action in the spread of pathogens and the resulting high numbers of colony losses needs to be brought into the fore of management and policy decisions if we are to reduce colony losses to acceptable levels."

Story Source: Materials provided by Entomological Society of America.

Journal Reference: Robert Owen. Role of Human Action in the Spread of Honey Bee (Hymenoptera: Apidae) Pathogens. Journal of Economic Entomology, 2017; DOI: 10.1093/jee/tox075

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/04/170406121535.htm

A Bee Mogul Confronts the Crisis in His Fields

The New York Times    By Stephanie Strom     February 16, 2017

 

Bret Adee’s family operation provides more than two billion bees to farmers who need to pollinate their crops. Before the hives are moved to the California almond groves where they are used in January and February, they are kept on a cattle ranch at a safe distance from pesticide and herbicide sprays. Credit Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times

Beekeeping on an industrial scale is central to American agriculture,
and “colony collapse” has proved to be a severe test.

KERN COUNTY, Calif. — A soft light was just beginning to outline the Tejon Hills as Bret Adee counted rows of wizened almond trees under his breath.

He placed a small white flag at the end of every 16th row to show his employees where they should place his beehives. Every so often, he fingered the buds on the trees. “It won’t be long,” he said.

Mr. Adee (pronounced Ay-Dee) is America’s largest beekeeper, and this is his busy season. Some 92,000 hives had to be deployed before those buds burst into blossom so that his bees could get to the crucial work of pollination.

But it is notable that he has a business at all. For the last decade, a mysterious plague has killed billions of bees every year.

“Every year at this time of year, we wonder are there going to be enough bees,” said Bob Curtis, director of agricultural affairs at the Almond Board, a trade group for almond growers.

Pollination services, as the bees’ work is known in the industry, has risen this year to between $180 to $200 a hive from an average of $154 a hive in 2006, Mr. Curtis said.

There would be no almond crop — not to mention avocados, apples, cherries and alfalfa — without honeybees. Of the 100 crops that account for 90 percent of the food eaten around the globe, 71 rely on bee pollination, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Times The Daily 360 

Watch in Times Video »

A mesmerizing look inside the beehives and pollination operation of a third-generation
commercial beekeeper as he ships his bees across California for almond season.

 By MELISSA LYTTLE, JOSHUA THOMAS and LOGAN JAFFE on 
Publish Date February 16, 2017. 
Photo by Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times.
Technology by Samsung. 

Demand for Mr. Adee’s bees is soaring in part because a poorly understood plague, known as colony collapse, has decimated the nation’s bee population in the last decade. The cause is widely debated: Some cite climate change affecting habitat, others the proliferation of certain pesticides, but most believe the problem has multiple factors.

Whatever the reason, in the year that ended in April 2016, 44 percent of the overall commercial bee population died. In a typical year before the plague, only 10 percent to 15 percent would have died, and Mr. Adee’s losses would have been between 3 and 7 percent.

“Over the last five years, I think this small industry could easily have lost $1.2 billion worth of bees,” Mr. Adee said. To put that in context: The total United States commercial bee business had a value of only about $500 million in 2012, according to the Honey Bee Advisory Council, created by Monsanto in 2012 to study its impact on bee health.

Nor is the problem limited to honeybees. The bumblebee was scheduled to be listed under the Endangered Species Act on Feb. 10, but the Trump administration put the plan aside, pending further review. The E.P.A. has not responded to requests for comment.

This is pollination season for America’s almond trees. As a result, in recent weeks almost two-thirds of the country’s commercial bees have started buzzing through California’s orchards. Some of the bees have been shipped in from as far away as Florida.

Adee Honey Farms has some 92,000 hives, each with roughly 40,000 bees, about 3.5 billion bees in total. Most spend the winter here in hives scattered across a 3,000-acre cattle ranch surrounded by low hills with easy access to water, a necessity for such a concentrated population.

During pollination season, the bees are loaded onto a dozen flatbed trucks and nine or 10 tractor-trailers and ferried to work, starting first in the almond orchards in late January, then moving to other California crops like broccoli and avocados. About 10 percent of the Adee bees are dispatched to Oregon and Washington State, where they pollinate cherry and apple trees.

Bret Adee checked inside a hive on a ranch near Bakersfield, Calif. 
Credit Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times

They work until early May, when the trucks take them to the Midwest for the summer.

Like other commercial beekeepers struggling with the population decline, Mr. Adee has stayed afloat, in part, by acquiring the colonies of other beekeepers: The number of commercial beekeepers (those with more than 300 hives) has dropped, though no one is certain by how many.

He has also been forced to split his colonies to rebuild his stocks, a process that entails moving some bees out of one colony and fooling them into building colonies around new queens.

Nonetheless, his losses were so high last year that he had to borrow bees to fulfill his contracts. This year, thanks in part to the acquisition another beekeeper’s business, he had bees still waiting for work as he deployed his hives across California in late January.

He attributes this year’s relative good fortune to the decline last summer of soy aphids, a tiny, translucent, invasive insect from Asia that devastates soybean crops in America. Fewer of the pests meant that many soybean farmers in South Dakota delivered only one application of the pesticide known as neonicotinoids, Mr. Adee said, and the spraying occurred before the arrival of his bees. (Adee bees spend the summer in North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Minnesota, and Kelvin Adee raises queen bees in Texas and Mississippi.)

Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticides that are widely used to kill off aphids and other bugs. Some studies tie them to the declining health of bees and a drop in the populations of birds that depend on those insects for food. In 2013, the European Union and several countries in other areas placed limits on the use of those insecticides.

“The more you study it, the more obvious it becomes: the relationship between the pesticides that have been sprayed everywhere over the last 10 years and what’s happening to bees,” Mr. Adee said.

Not that he blames any one thing for the problem. Rather, it is that comprehensive research is rarely done, which, he said, would implicate a variety of factors.

During the commotion of moving the hives, an employee, Alfredo Sosa, smoked the bees
to keep them calm. 
Credit Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times

James Frazier, a bee expert at Pennsylvania State University, agreed. The bee shortage has to do with the overall health of bees, and not one or two specific things. Bees are exposed to a variety of pesticides, all of which can affect their immune systems, he said. That in turn makes them less resistant to diseases and parasites carried by the varroa mite and enables the spread of viruses.

“It’s more complicated than trying to cure cancer,” Dr. Frazier said, “because bees are outside, where you have all these uncontrollable things working on them.

Bees from one keeper are mixing with those from other populations as their numbers fall. That may aid in the spread of diseases and parasites, said Ann Bartuska, the acting under secretary for research, education and economics at the Agriculture Department.

“There is no smoking gun,” Dr. Bartuska said. “We still are trying to tease out what combination of factors really leads to beehive health declines.”

Adee Honey Farms was started by Vernon Adee, Mr. Adee’s grandfather, during the Great Depression after he received a letter from his brother in Missouri that read: “I can’t sell chickens or hogs, but I’m doing well with honey. Be advised: Get a beehive.”

Vernon Adee and his son, Richard, raised bees for honey production only. But as that business began to suffer from competition from Chinese and Latin American honey producers, Bret Adee and his brother Kelvin, sons of Richard Adee, figured they needed to develop another business to keep the company afloat.

So in 1990, Bret Adee and his wife, Connie, packed their two children (they now have four) into a truck loaded with beehives and moved to Bakersfield, Calif. Today, the pollination business provides two-thirds of the company’s revenue and all of its profits, Mr. Adee said.

Bees were kept at a ranch outside of Bakersfield, Calif., before being transported
to almond groves. 
Credit Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times

Because of imported honey, “There’s no money in honey any more,” he said. Nonetheless, his daughter Elizabeth has started selling the family’s honey in farmers’ markets, a tactic she hopes will help revive that portion of the business.

When the Adees arrived in Bakersfield in 1990, there were 411,000 acres of farmland planted with almond trees, according to the Agriculture Department. Since then, the number of acres of almond trees has more than doubled, and growers have adopted techniques that are less bee-friendly.

Growers previously flooded their orchards with warm water in the early spring to prevent frost from killing the buds. The water gave rise to grasses and weeds like dandelions and wild vetch between the rows of trees, giving the bees a source of pollen before the buds burst into bloom.

But now, growers aim to conserve water, and because weeds and grasses can trap cool air that can lead to frost, most almond ranchers spray herbicides to keep the rows between their trees free of unwanted growth.

To safeguard his bees, Mr. Adee’s employees lay a pad made of yeast, sugar and other nutrients under the lid of a hive to give the bees something to eat before the trees bloom.

He also scouts out areas close to uncultivated land or grazing areas with water nearby. His bees spent last fall and early winter in hives scattered about a ranch ringed by the foothills of the Diablo Range and close to aqueducts and other water sources. “They’re far away from anything bad for them,” he said.

At the ranch, cattle lazily grazed in the evening amid neatly stacked clusters of hives, looking on curiously when flatbed trucks pulled into load the bees for overnight journeys.

Hives were loaded by forklift onto trucks. Credit Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times

The deployment of bees resembles a military operation, with Mr. Adee serving as its commander. Hives must be loaded onto trucks in the evening, four hives at a time on pallets precariously balanced on a forklift. Each truck transports 216 hives over dirt roads that, thanks to this season’s rain, were deeply rutted and thick with mud.

The Adee bees rent for $200 a hive. On average, Mr. Adee places two hives per acre of almond trees. A 4,500-acre almond orchard would require about 9,000 hives, although growers are free to specify the number of hives they want.

Commercial beekeepers are a tight-knit group, and most new contracts come as referrals from other beekeepers and clients. “It’s kind of like a grapevine,” Mr. Adee said. “If you have to advertise, then you’re not much of a beekeeper.”

During pollination season, he typically leaves home at 5:30 a.m. and heads for an orchard or field to map the day’s plan. He relies on two thermoses of coffee to keep him going.

Placing flags to mark the spots in orchards where hives are to be placed gives Mr. Adee a chance to survey the terrain. If a row of trees happens to have a low spot, he will place a flag a few rows away to ensure the hives do not stand in water. If his pickup slips in the mud, he makes a call to warn drivers not to take their much heavier equipment down the same path.

Mr. Adee marks plot maps with neon Sharpies, using a different color to indicate which crew is to deliver which bees to a particular spot.

After setting his crews in action — roughly 100 employees during pollination season, Mr. Adee then makes a second and sometimes a third round of deliveries to orchards, stopping occasionally to right a hive or gently squeeze the tips of branches to gauge when they might bud. He then has an idea when his bees might need to be fed again.

Hives look like small white dots on ranchland outside Bakersfield, Calif. Demand for pollination services has increased as a mysterious plague known as colony collapse has decimated the
nation’s bee population over the last decade.
 CreditKendrick Brinson for The New York Times

Between stops, he talks on the phone — when his cell gets a signal, that is. In one call, he spoke to his foreman about two trucks needing repair.

Then he called an independent trucker to see if he could move bees that night, diplomatically sidestepping the man’s request that he also hire a friend. “Well, I won’t know until tonight what’s needed,” Mr. Adee said.

After that, he called a lawyer, seeking counsel for a beekeeper who had lost his bees after the ranch across the street sprayed an organic phosphate. “It was an illegal application, and the county knows it,” he said. “But the county is dragging its feet. He needs some help.”

In 2006, David Hackenberg, another beekeeper with a large bee collection, lost 90 percent of them and coined the term colony collapse. Mr. Adee had no such problem that year. I in the documentary made that year, “The Vanishing of the Bees,” he can be heard saying,“We haven’t seen any of this colony-collapse disorder here.”

Shortly after the film came out, though, he also lost almost all the family’s bees.

“Still, I was convinced my problem was a virus, not what David had,” Mr. Adee said. “I thought it would take three years for it to run its course, and then we’d be done with it.”

But the losses stretched on, into a fourth and then fifth year. Last year, after having lost roughly half of his 90,000 hives, he joined Mr. Hackenberg, other beekeepers and environmental groups in a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency.

The suit contends that the E.P.A. broke the law by failing to require registration of seeds coated in pesticides, as many genetically engineered seeds are. “E.P.A.’s actions and inactions have caused both acute honeybee kills and chronic effects leading to excess bee colony mortality, excess bird mortality, nationwide water and soil contamination, and other environmental and economic harms,” the plaintiffs argued.

There is no federal insurance program to cover beekeepers. The federal 2008 Farm Bill did allocate $50 million in emergency assistance to cover losses in livestock, farm-raised fish and honeybees, but only through 2011.

A year later, the Agriculture Department estimated that beekeepers had spent $2 billion to replace the 10 million hives they had lost in the six years since bee colonies first began experiencing declines.

Here, the almond trees are just beginning to bloom. Mr. Adee’s bees work alongside their boss, who is working the phones.

Someone on the phone asked him to address a matter that had nothing to do with his bees. “I don’t know that I have time for that,” Mr. Adee said. “Or rather, I know I don’t have time.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/16/business/a-bee-mogul-confronts-the-crisis-in-his-field.html?_r=0