Updated: Apr 2, 2020
I promise this is the final post in my almond pollination 2020 series [part 1] [part 2] [part 3]. This time, I’m offering a solution for how the almond and bee industries can sustain growth over the next 2 decades. It’ll be another few years before this happens, but California almond acreage will eventually reach its peak and begin to recede. In the meantime, our best path forward is to protect almond growers and beekeepers through economic policy designed to increase bee supply.
THE FUNDING ISSUE
My last post offered a few approaches to the issue of our limited bee supply and how it’s not compatible with the global demand for almonds. One approach was to provide supplemental funding to beekeepers, who have shown that they can effectively mitigate colony loss with the help of additional income. Beekeepers are well-funded these days thanks to almond pollination fees, but much of that money is spent on Varroa treatments and extra labor to keep colonies alive. More beekeepers are targeting pollination fees as their main source of income, at the sake of honey production.
Chart built with USDA data illustrating US honey consumption and production since 1986 (source: https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/sugar-and-sweeteners-yearbook-tables.aspx)
Aside from the appeal of high-value pollination contracts, a major factor for the decline in honey production is the influx of foreign honey (see chart). Although U.S. honey consumption has more than doubled in the past 30 years, the dollars aren’t going to American producers. Consumers may think they’re helping to “save the bees” by purchasing honey at the supermarket, but nearly 75% of honey consumed in the states last year was produced on foreign soil.
These imports have driven down prices so much that honey production is no longer lucrative for many American beekeepers. “It costs the US producer around $1.75 to $1.85 to produce a pound of honey,” says beekeeper Kelvin Adee. “They’re bringing it in here under a dollar and there’s no way we can compete with that.”
A SIMPLE SOLUTION
One way to divert the money back into the pockets of American beekeepers is to increase tariffs on imported honey. Higher tariffs will lead to higher prices. Although consumer demand will take a hit, domestic production will still fall plenty short of meeting demand. Increased prices will draw some beekeepers back to focusing on honey production, ultimately reducing the supply of bees for post-almond crop pollination*. With more hives going to mid-season honey sites, fewer will be available to pollinate apples, cherries, blueberries and watermelons, forcing these growers to raise their bid to rent hives during the spring and summer months. All this extra revenue will allow beekeepers to hire additional labor and invest in increasing their stock of hives. *I say post-almond pollination because I imagine honey producers will still use the February almond bloom to build hives early in the season ahead of the first honey crop.
Though it may seem like a roundabout solution to the issue of limited bee supply constraining almond production, honey tariffs will provide much-needed funding to beekeepers, who will in turn use the funds to increase bee supply. With this solution, almond growers will no longer bear the brunt of funding the survival of our honeybee population. Other growers—who benefit from strong post-almond bees—will pay their dues, as will American consumers.