Beekeepers face a complex future

1010_Bees05The panic over the plight of the honeybee has passed. Now let’s worry about the health of the beekeepers.

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The beekeepers at Foothills Honey Company in Colton manage 5,000 hives. Says owner George Hansen: “We ask a lot of hard work of bee

The honeybee is without a doubt the irresistible part of this story. A winsome insect, with six legs, two compound eyes, three simple eyes, two sets of wings, a nectar pouch and a stomach, it is famously industrious, clean and organized, not to mention an exceptional team player, good construction engineer and loyal guard. The honeybee even does a cute hokey-pokey — the so-called waggle dance — that tells co-workers where to find food. It generously provides the only insect-produced food eaten by humans.

Over the millennia, honeybees also have become critical soldiers for the agriculture industrial complex. Pulled out of deep hibernation, bundled up and shipped all over the place, they are subjected to much stress and disease. But they get the job done. On their hairy little backs rest the worldwide responsibility for 80% of all insect pollination. The annual value of the 90 crops in the U.S. that require pollination by honeybees is estimated at $24 billion; in Oregon it’s almost half a billion dollars.

When their numbers began to plummet in the winter of 2006, the modest and generally unsung honeybee was in the spotlight. Headlines shouting “Honeybee disaster!” were followed by many stories of the mysterious CCD, colony collapse disorder, which were followed by much worry about the fate of the bee and the complete and total collapse of the food supply if the mysterious bee losses continued. The state re-funded the vacant bee researcher position at Oregon State University and Oregon’s small and politically insignificant commercial beekeepers — only about two dozen own and manage 90% of the 50,000 colonies in the state — gained new support.

Web only content: More about honeybees

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pdfPacific Northwest Honey Bee Pollination Economics Survey 2009, by Michael Burgett

pdfHoney Bee Mortality in the Pacific Northwest: Winter 2008/2009, by Michael Burgett, Dewey Caron, et al

pdfU.S. Pollination Markets: Recent Changes and Historical Perspective, Michael Burgett, et al

Keeping honeybees healthy has been a longtime battle. When the Varroa mite came to North America in 1987, it decimated the population (which is native to Europe), and recovery over the decades has been hard-won. In Oregon, this is the fourth year of bee losses of 25% or higher. Researchers agree there is not just one reason, but many possible ones: bad weather, poor nutrition, stress, pesticides, weak queens, loss of habitat, and mites that have become resistant to treatment and are transmitting viruses, which is new.

“The beekeepers have been having a problem for a long time,” says W. Steve Sheppard, an entomologist with Washington State University. “So the reaction that we’ll lose our bees and they’ll cease to exist was a little over the top. But we’re doing some things differently. Beekeepers are much more aware of colony health. They’ve become better beekeepers, the more successful ones.”

It comes down to the better beekeepers. While honeybee losses are serious, there is no longer panic. Better now to worry about their human handlers because the irrefutable part of this story is that it rests on the backs of that small cadre of dedicated commercial beekeepers to keep the honeybee thriving. Without them, the honeybee most certainly would be in deeper Bandini.

George Hansen, owner of the Foothills Honey Company, started beekeeping as a hobby 25 years ago. His company now does $2 million in annual revenue.

George Hansen has had just a few hours sleep after spending the night moving his bees to a pollination job in Madras, but he is awake, freshly shaved and ready to talk about bees. The 61-year-old Hansen is by most accounts one of the superior beekeepers in Oregon, though he comes to it differently than most.

Unlike many beekeepers who come from a long family line of them, Hansen is the son of a government bureaucrat who started out teaching Russian 25 years ago to immigrant school kids in Woodburn. (Russians now comprise his bee crew.) He kept bees as a hobby and eventually stopped teaching to try to make money from his hives. Today, his Foothills Honey Company in Colton is a $2 million operation with 5,000 hives. He makes 75% of his revenue off pollination services; 20% from honey; and about 5% from bee sales and wax, a fairly typical breakdown for beekeepers. Sixty years ago, most just produced honey.

Modern farming and other factors have decimated wild pollinators, so growers now depend on beekeepers like Hansen. “They call us, give us 48 hours to pollinate before they spray [pesticides] and then we leave.”

His bee loss is extremely low, only 5% to 10% per year, while some beekeepers are reporting losses of up to 30% to 40%. His taciturn response to that is to wonder if it isn’t just bad colony management.

“We ask a lot of hard work of bees and put a lot of stress on them,” says Hansen. “If I did nothing we would lose 30% or more. That’s what we don’t allow.”

Fellow beekeeper Dirk Olsen says it straight out.

“A lot of beekeepers blame CCD for bee losses when it’s poor management,” says Olsen, who owns Olsen Honey Farms in Albany. Olsen began keeping bees in 1971 when he was 17 as a way to put himself through OSU. His family-owned operation is now a $1 million-plus business and manages up to 6,000 hives. “We’ve got mites and they’ve become resistant. They can get out of control real quick. Beekeepers will blame that on CCD,” he says.

Large beekeepers still in the game at this point know what they are doing. Like farming everywhere, success means good stewardship, an unwavering dedication to your animal (or insect). The best beekeeper spends the money to address the myriad assaults on the bee, with nutrition being among the most important ways to keep a bee healthy. “We are very strong on nutrition,” says Jan Lohman of Vazza Farms in Hermiston, which keeps 2,200 hives. “That’s the up and coming thing in the bee industry.”

Nutrition is a big focus for OSU researcher Ramesh Sagili, who replaced longtime OSU bee expert Michael Burgett, who retired in 2002. Sagili is also studying the bee’s immune system, treatment thresholds and the ever-present mite. In a survey of hives this spring, he found that 22 Oregon commercial beekeepers who managed 37,000 hives reported average losses of 25%; nationally the rate was 34% for total bee loss over this past winter.

Burgett, now an OSU emeritus professor, is a devil’s advocate about CCD and doesn’t see the losses as catastrophic. “The health of the bees is great,” he says.

In his 2008-2009 study on bee mortality, he found losses in the region were “above average but not by much. Most of the beekeepers made up their losses. So there are now more hives in Oregon than before CCD.” This is not to diminish the seriousness of bee loss and finding ways to prevent it, but the important thing that has resulted, says Burgett, is more money for research.

“Now we’ve discovered new pathogens. We’ve found a new virus, and a new nosema [parasite],” he says. “Increased funding is allowing us to find out more about what makes bees sick.”

Hansen puts great effort into keeping his bees healthy. His approach demands his unwavering dedication (he rarely takes a day off) and it is expensive: “I do not really allow the bees to fail,” says Hansen. “We are giving bees a whole lot more than we used to give them. We don’t depend on nature giving them anything anymore.”

Managed honeybees are under stress from mites, bad weather, loss of habitat and other factors. Keeping them healthy is expensive and time-intensive.

Thirty-five years ago it cost him $35 to $40 to run a hive of bees. Hansen says it’s now $250-$300 per colony per year to keep them healthy through good nutrition, medicine and other inputs. He also changes the 50 combs in each of his 5,000 hives every five years because of pesticide buildup. He also has 10 full-time workers, with full benefits. All of this costs a “fortune,” but it is Hansen’s formula for success.

It also means that beekeeping isn’t highly profitable.

“Pollination rentals do not fully pay the bills, though prices have been rising, and honey profits are thin,” says Dewey Caron, an entomologist from the University of Delaware who has researched bees for more than 40 years and has written on the economics of beekeeping. He recently retired to the Portland area and is working gratis with OSU’s Sagili.

“The ‘good years’ are only every five to 10 years,” Caron says. “Loans are hard to get. Hives aren’t standard collateral. Often it is a family operation.” OSU’s Burgett estimates that the amount spent by growers on pollination services is about 2.3% of the total crop value. He says honeybee colony rental was for many decades an underpaid service to the ag industry and that only within the past decade have rental fees begun to reflect the enormous value-added service of managed pollination.

Burgett estimates it costs an average of $173 to run a hive, and the average pollination income is $164 per hive. Profits come from honey and other sales, such as beeswax and surplus bees. Beekeepers last year made between $125-$155 per hive for California almond pollination. Hansen says it’s the largest paycheck, “but it is the most difficult to cash in on. Bees are not at their largest or most productive [during almond season]. They should be hibernating then. And yet, we get paid to trick our bees into being opposite of what they would naturally be. And that’s not easy.”

Putting bees into situations that are not optimal for their health is what allows beekeepers to make more money renting hives to pollinate crops such as carrot seeds, which do not offer much nutrition to the bee. Central Oregon Seeds in Madras spends $750,000 annually to rent the hives needed to pollinate its hybrid carrot seeds. Managing partner Mike Weber knows all the beekeepers in the state and how they do their business.

Weber and other growers had pushed for years to get the OSU bee researcher replaced after Burgett retired; when CCD came along, it finally became a priority and got funded. Weber puts in $20,000 a year to help fund research; many growers and associated groups also donate. He, too, is not overly worried about bee health. “Our beekeeping group is taking care,” he says.

In Oregon, prices range from $25 per hive to pollinate blueberries to $72 per hive for carrot seed pollination. Weber pays that higher price gladly. “I’m very open with the beekeepers. I will flat out tell them, ‘We need you, we can’t do without you.’ Normally you never tell somebody those kinds of things in negotiations. If we can’t get the bees, there’s no need to grow the crop. You need to keep the beekeeper in high regard, and pay them fairly. The growers recognize that a healthy beekeeper means we will stay in business.”

Staying in business is also of great concern to Oregon’s commercial beekeepers. “Beekeepers are wondering whether they are economically viable,” says Anita Azarenko, head of OSU’s department of horticulture. “That’s the biggest concern. It’s more than colony collapse.”

Like all farm work, commercial beekeeping is unrelenting and physically demanding. Oregon beekeepers are on the road most of the year, running to help pollinate the almond crop in California in the winter months, a job that brings in about 60% of their income, then it’s back to Oregon for the spring and summer pollination of cherries, pears, blueberries, carrot seeds and meadowfoam around the state. The costs of labor (a beekeeper needs about one employee per 1,000 hives), transportation, restocking, new queens, medicine and feed are constantly rising. To be a good beekeeper, you have to be a jack of all trades, good at mechanics, biology, botany, geography and, yes, PR. You’ve got to convince landowners to let you use their property for bee pasture, land that is becoming increasingly rare because of urbanization and farming. The willing landowners are paid in liquid gold.

“We don’t have our own land to keep our bees; nobody does,” says Lohman. “You couldn’t keep 2,000 colonies. Your neighbors would kill you. We bring our bees into 12 yards, people with 20 acres. People are kind about letting us use their property, but it is getting harder to find those yards.”

It requires tenacity and vigilance to make this all work. “A beekeeper has to be willing to stay on top of his program,” says Dave LeFore of LeFore Honey Farms in Milton-Freewater. “Always monitoring, looking for mites and disease. If the bee is not doing well, looking at options. In the difficult years when production is low, surviving can be challenging.”

Growers also realize there is a scarcity of bees. Beekeepers are able to get some better prices than before. But that doesn’t diminish the problems of keeping a healthy colony. It’s a big challenge to create high-quality hives to offer for pollination.

So a few more answers on how to be a better steward are greatly needed because success is never a sure thing, even for superior beekeepers like Hansen, who despite his vigilance lost nearly everything in 1997 to the tracheal mite. He and other beekeepers have put their own money in to help fund OSU’s research.

“A lot of problems we have are due to exotic pests, changes in the environment. All wild pollinators are in decline: birds, bees, bats. It is a serious problem that isn’t going to go away,” says Hansen. “If 40% of all the cows in the U.S. died every year, like in some bee hives every winter, there would be some serious money being spent to solve the problem.”

Harvesting honey at Olsen Honey Farms in Albany.

Dave LeFore runs 15,000 hives, making his bee operation in Milton-Freewater among the largest around. In the early 1990s, his family business grew to the point where it didn’t have adequate bee pasture in Oregon (only about 10% of the land in the state is suitable) so they bought a bee operation in Montana and one in North Dakota to expand their pasture. Unlike most other beekeepers in Oregon, LeFore makes about 50% of his income from honey, and the rest from pollination rental. LeFore produces about a million pounds of honey per year, selling to large wholesalers like Golden Heritage Foods in Kansas. In January, he begins to chase spring for six months: he sends 40 semi-truck loads of bees to Modesto to pollinate almonds, which brings in 35% of his revenue; then the Pacific Northwest to pollinate cherries, applies, pears and plums; Montana for clover and alfalfa honey production; North Dakota for sunflowers and canola seed. LeFore loves this migratory life. No two years are ever alike, and he is never bored.

The 63-year-old LeFore has been at this for more than 40 years. Economic margins might be thin for the beekeeper, but there are other measurements that matter far more.

“Beekeeping is something that gets in your blood. I’m not sure I can put it all in words,” says LeFore. “It becomes part of you. It’s not fun to be up at odd hours or to get stung, but there are so many parts about it that are exciting. Beekeepers are very much in tune with their bees. A beekeeper is a person keeping bees. They are more connected than most people realize.”

Though his bee loss is low, between 10% and 15%, it’s twice what it was 10 years ago. He has developed an all-natural essential oil that he uses in the brood nest mixed with a little vegetable shortening that he credits with keeping his bees healthy. “A lot of beekeepers are looking over their shoulder,” he says. “You’re hoping something unexpected doesn’t catch up to you.”

Yet it is the very expected that is catching up to this small handful of large commercial beekeepers so critical to the state’s agriculture. Like many workforces, this group is growing old, and it worries growers. “Several will retire in the next five years and I’m not sure who will replace them,” says Mike Weber of Central Oregon Seeds.

That’s a question the keepers are trying to answer themselves. Dirk Olsen is one of the younger ones at 56. He has daughters and it’s pretty certain they won’t be getting into bees. “Handling bees has become very hard, so there’s a large likelihood that the next owners would not be successful,” he says.

Dave LeFore married into a beekeeping family — his wife’s grandfather and father were beekeepers — and now his son and his grandson keep bees, while his son-in-law works for him, and he hopes to have him take over one day. LeFore “occasionally” thinks about retiring. “I think there will be enough young people around to carry the torch,” says LeFore. “But it takes a unique person to be a beekeeper. They are one in 100.”

“Beekeeping is not doomed,” says researcher Michael Burgett. “George has a couple of handsome strong sons and one wants to follow him.”

Indeed, George does. The morning that Hansen returned late from his Madras trip, son Matt was already back to work after making the trip with him. Hansen plans to retire in five years and the 33-year-old Matt is his heir. The schoolteacher who did not come from a long line of beekeepers is creating one of his own.

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