The price to rent bees for pollination has skyrocketed over the past two decades, particularly for almond growers. 20 years ago, an almond grower could easily rent bees for less than $50 per hive. Today, average price hovers around $200, with premium hives going for $220 and above.
So what’s causing the spike in prices? Are today’s bees four times more effective than the bees 20 years ago? A major factor is demand. Growers planted almonds and other pollination-dependent crops at a record pace in the early 2000s. Today, almond pollination commands more than 2.5 million hives—far more than any other crop.
With high demand and rising prices for pollination, beekeepers must be making a killing, right? Not quite. This 2019 study published by Project Apis M offers an excellent breakdown of a beekeeper’s costs and revenues in an average season.
Why costs are up
As more and more hives are called up to make the trip out to California, almond growers have begun to pay close attention to the quality of hives they receive. Beekeepers are expected to deliver strong hives, but almond pollination is the first opportunity for the bees to “wake up” after winter. Since bees need to arrive in California around the first of February, it’s too cold in most places for beekeepers to feed hives before they’re shipped out.
Beekeepers reacted by investing more resources into their bees, with the goal of maximizing colony populations when they’re needed in the almonds. One emerging approach is to store hives in climate-controlled sheds during the coldest winter months. Though this has shown to decrease winter colony loss, it’s not a silver bullet solution. The study mentions a few “mantras” for overwinter storage:
“You get out what you put in” “Garbage in, garbage out” “Storages are not hospitals”
The bottom line is that overwinter storage won’t revive weak hives. A beekeeper who wants to use overwinter storage must invest significant resources to prepare the bees.
Breaking down the costs
For the study linked above, Project Apis M managed 190 hives for an entire season, tracking every expense along the way. In Autumn, they sent half the hives to overwinter storage and half to spend the winter in Texas (72 each). To prepare the 72 hives for storage, they spent $4,500 on feeding hives, treating for mites and labor. Storage fees and loading costs added another $1,042.
Unfortunately, only 33 of the 72 hives were strong enough in February to make the trip to CA, bringing transport and orchard placement costs down to $1,515. All told, they spent $7,057 from October to February to prepare hives, store them in overwinter sheds, and place them in almond orchards. Of the 33 hives that made it into the orchards, they paid over $210 per hive.
Project Apis M’s cost per hive is particularly high because they experienced an unusually high winter loss rate. With a more reasonable loss rate of 20%, cost per hive would be around $125. However, let’s not forget the mantras for overwinter storage; the high loss rate suggests that they may not have invested nearly enough into preparing hives for storage.
Why beekeepers do it
You might wonder why a beekeeper would go through the trouble of offering almond pollination only to eat a loss of $10-15 per hive. The idea of opportunity cost is helpful to understand why. By sending hives to almond pollination, beekeepers gain a massive head-start to the season.
Bees come out of almonds far stronger than when they arrived, so beekeepers enjoy an opportunity to multiply their inventory and make up for winter losses. Fueled by loads of fresh nectar and pollen, queens begin laying eggs to grow the colony early into almond pollination. Before they leave almonds, beekeepers will “split” hives—taking bees from one strong colony and dividing them to create 2 hives.
The opportunity cost of sending hives to almond pollination is this early-season boost in colony strength and hive inventory. Beekeepers who don’t provide almond pollination start the season at a disadvantage—as their bees first begin to wake up in the spring, bees coming out of almond pollination are already built up, split into more hives, and ready to collect honey or pollinate the next crop.
If your beekeeper requests a price bump this season, remember they’re operating with razor-thin margins. A $5 or $10 increase per hive won’t be a windfall for your beekeeper—it’ll help them pay their debts sooner.
Beekeepers who provide almond pollination must tailor their entire year around preparing for it. With nearly every decision a beekeeper will make in a season—how many crops to pollinate, how much honey to harvest, when to treat for mites, how many workers to hire, etc.—they ask the same question: how will this impact hive strength come February?