by Bill and Mary Weaver
Pollination prices are expected to be trending upward on the east coast this spring, with a shortage of hives for rental in some areas.
Commercial pollinator Grant Stiles, whose home base is in New Jersey, but who winters his bees in the south, 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, Dennis Wright of Fruitwood Apiaries, said it costs him $3300 a semi-load of 480 hives to bring his bees from their Florida wintering 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,” said Wright. “In fact, some trucking companies that used to haul bees will no longer truck them for any price because of liability issues.”
A second expense problem beekeepers face 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.
Stiles stated it costs him $25 to $30 per hive each year for the treatments and the labor to apply them. “For 1,000 hives, that’s $25,000 to $30,000 off the top,” and the treatments are not optional.
Labor costs for treating for mites are 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 down in the brood nest, it means the mites are developing resistance to your miticide, and you need to buy and apply a different material. Some of these chemicals are very hard on queens.
Third, hive losses year after year across the U.S. are high. Pennsylvania commercial beekeeper and migratory pollinator Tim Miller was pleased he had “only” 30 percent hive losses last winter. (In the preceding winters, his losses were 60 percent and 70 percent respectively.)
The Hackenbergs’ very large operation, based in Lewisburg, PA, 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. Dave Hackenberg commented, “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.
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, including Wright, to be the result of a class of pesticides that are widely used and depended upon, the neonicotinoids, including clothianadin, imidacloprid, and thiametoxam.
According to Wright, these pesticides are systemics, which means the “neonics” chemicals are transported throughout the whole plant, including the plants’ pollen and nectar. The chemicals make the pollen and nectar 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, dust raised at planting 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 the BBC article, the European Union will soon vote on the issue, as well.
The east coast pollinators with whom we spoke believed they had already noticed a connection. “Put your bees down next to a cornfield, and they’ll soon be dead,” commented Hackenberg. “Also,” he continued, “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 Wright, “and hobby beekeepers around golf courses have very high losses. A lot of growers are spraying with these chemicals right after bloom.” Wright hopes the 11-month period between that last after-bloom spray and the beginning of the next year’s blueberry pollination is long enough for the neonic chemicals to break down and be gone from the soil and the plants, so the plants’ nectar and pollen are no longer a threat to the bees.
But the neonics persist in the soil/plants longer than that. “We told the EPA this would happen,” commented Hackenberg. “Some streams in Georgia are already contaminated with the chemicals, and they have a long half-life.”
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 extremely acute contact toxicity.
Also, 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 migratory pollinator Dave Mendes, is of poor quality and less nutritious. Mendes 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.”
There’s a rising chorus among east coast beekeepers about fungicides being applied during the daytime, when the bees are working. Tim Stewart, who pollenizes in New Jersey, 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 added, “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 aren’t required to notify beekeepers when they’ll be spraying fungicides, like they are with insecticides. 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 Dave Hackenberg commented, “There might be enough bees in the country to take care of pollination, but some may not be in the right place.”
Growers can figure, too, that if the neonics are in fact affecting commercial hives, they’ll also be affecting the wild solitary bees and bumblebees that some smaller growers have been relying on to take care of much of their pollination.
The East Coast pollination picture — from the beekeeper’s point of view
by Bill and Mary Weaver