Updated: Jul 31, 2020
Commercial beekeeping in the US has proven to be incredibly resilient to adversity. What was once an agricultural industry like any other, focused on directly producing food (honey), beekeeping has evolved into a service focused on producing food for others.
The story behind how and why beekeepers shifted to pollination is a tale that can be explained by supply and demand economics. Most folks not associated with agriculture are shocked to learn that honey isn’t the main source of income for most beekeepers. Yet the market for honey is key to understanding why pollination has become the main focus for beekeepers.
What happened to honey?
This table, which summarizes US honey economics since 1986 (source: USDA), offers a glimpse at how quickly beekeepers made the shift. The column on the right shows the percent of honey consumed by Americans that was produced in the states. The numbers speak for themselves, but I’ll try to add a little color to the data.
In the 90’s, honey production was strong and steady and consumption grew dramatically. On average, beekeepers produced 211.9 million pounds each year, and nearly three quarters of consumption was produced domestically. Prices didn’t change much throughout the decade, but that doesn’t appear to have had much of an impact on production. The massive uptick in honey imports during the late 90’s is perhaps the biggest driver of change.
People familiar with the honey industry would think to blame China for the increase in imports in the late 90’s, but China’s share of honey imports actually decreased in the latter half of the decade. From 1990 to 1994, we imported 123 million pounds of honey from China, whereas in 1995-1999, only 80 million pounds came from China. The big jump in imports largely stems from honey produced in Argentina—from ~67 million pounds in 90-94 to 165 million pounds in ’95-’99. During that 5-year stretch, half of all honey imports came from Argentina.
Who should we blame?
New free trade agreements passed during the Clinton years could be to blame, but I don’t think that tells the whole story. Here’s my take: consumers tend not to be picky about where their honey was produced. As beekeepers learned that their customers didn’t give preference to American-produced honey, they foresaw an inevitable conclusion: increasingly cheap foreign honey would flood US grocery stores, pricing out American beekeepers to such an extent that selling honey would hardly cover the cost of labor. In need of a new reliable revenue stream, beekeepers looked elsewhere.
Meanwhile, almond production began its gradual ascent. At the turn of the century, almond orchards took up only 500,000 acres in the Central Valley and growers were “paying dearly for their bees,” at a rate of $50/hive. As more beekeepers began considering almond pollination, hive loss rates grew and so did almond plantings. As the 2000s wore on, decreasing supply and growing demand caused pollination prices to spike up, making the switch to pollination a no-brainer.
There are countless factors that caused the beekeeping industry to shift away from honey towards pollination income. Based on these numbers and my anecdotal understanding of honey consumers, a key factor behind the shift is that American honey consumers don’t go out of their way to purchase American-made honey.