More Beekeepers Sour on Profession as Winter Die-Offs Continue

 The Wall Street Journal   By Tennille Tracy  January 23, 2015

Rising Cost of Doing Business Takes Toll on Industry that Pollinates $15 Billion of Crops 

Orin Johnson, a second-generation beekeeper in California, has started to consider a life without his 500 colonies of honey bees.

At 67, he doesn’t work as fast as he once did, and yet his bees require greater amounts of time and money to maintain. A near constant barrage of threats, from pesticides to parasites, wiped out more than half of Mr. Johnson’s colonies last year.

“The costs are just getting out of hand,” he said. “I’m getting tired of it.”

Plenty of Mr. Johnson’s colleagues are in the same boat. Increasing numbers of beekeepers, who are generally in their 50s and 60s, are considering early retirement or are being forced out of business as honey bees continue to die at alarming rates.

For nearly a decade, beekeepers have been losing roughly 30% of their bees each winter, above the 19% depletion rate they say is sustainable, according to the Bee Informed Partnership, a group funded by the Agriculture Department to study bee health. While beekeepers can replenish their colonies by splitting and repopulating healthy hives, it is hard for them to recoup the costs of doing so.

“We’re not worried about the bees going extinct,” said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a bee researcher at the University of Maryland. “We’re worried about the beekeepers going extinct.”

The government doesn’t track employment statistics on commercial beekeepers, but the White House cited particular concern over the fate of professional beekeepers when it created a task force in June to address bee deaths.

Tim Tucker, president of the American Beekeeping Federation and a beekeeper in Kansas, said the number of professional beekeepers on its membership roster has fallen by at least half in the last two decades.

A dwindling supply of beekeepers is troubling for U.S. agriculture. Honey bees pollinate more than $15 billion of crops each year, including almonds, apples and cherries, and are responsible for pollinating one-third of the American diet. Without enough beekeepers, U.S. crop production could slow, forcing consumers to pay more for their food or rely more heavily on imported items.

Almond growers, who rely almost exclusively on honey bees for pollination, have seen the price of bee rentals increase 30% since 2006. Paramount Farms in California, one of the country’s largest almond growers, has started to look for beekeeping operations it can own independently to ensure a steady supply of pollinators as times get tougher for beekeepers.

The honey bee crisis dates back to at least 2006, when beekeepers first reported a troubling phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder. Adult bees were simply vanishing from their hives, leaving behind the younger bees, the queen and the honey.

There are now about 2.5 million honey-producing colonies, according to the Agriculture Department. That is about flat from 15 years ago, but masks the fact that the total number of large commercial beekeepers has fallen by at least several hundred, while the number of small hobbyists has grown, Mr. Tucker said. The colony total is down from 6 million in the 1940s.

There are signs this winter will bring more hefty losses, Mr. Tucker said. He lost nearly 40% of his colonies between September and November.

It is still unclear what is killing the bees. Scientists blame a combination of parasites, pesticides and poor nutrition, among other factors, but haven’t determined a single cause.

The Varroa mite, a blood-sucking parasite that weakens bees and brings diseases into the hive, is a common culprit. At the Department of Agriculture’s bee laboratory in Beltsville, Md., scientists routinely dissect and inspect dead bees, sent to them by beekeepers nationwide, looking for signs of the mite.

“If we could remove the Varroa mite from the equation, we’d be back at a sustainable level of loss,” said Jay Evans, a research entomologist at the Agriculture Department.

With so many potential threats to their bees, veteran beekeepers say their job has gotten increasingly expensive and complex.

The annual cost of maintaining a hive has quadrupled in the last 15 years, Mr. Tucker said. It now costs about $230,000 a year for a professional beekeeper running a modest 2,000 hives. Expensive items include mite treatments and protein supplements that support the bees’ diet as natural forage options dwindle.

Jim Doan, a third-generation beekeeper in New York state, was forced to sell his 112-acre farm in 2013, after losing most of his bees several years in a row. He tried to bounce back, buying new hives and diligently trying to ward off pests and disease, but nothing worked. Mr. Doan blames pesticides for the death of his bees. “I love the bee business, but I don’t see a future in the bee business,” he said.

For now, beekeepers say they are being kept afloat by high honey prices, which reached a record $2.12 a pound in 2013, according to the most recent government data, and the lucrative pollination fees they receive from farmers.

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