Updated: Dec 22, 2022
Legal drama, political jockeying and criminal activity. Three things that probably don’t come to mind when you think of the US beekeeping industry—unless you’re in the loop. Not known for airing their dirty laundry in public, beekeepers prefer to keep their drama in-house. But with this many fascinating storylines in motion, I can’t bite my tongue.
To keep this post brief, I broke down the juiciest stories into bite-sized pieces, though each of these topics deserve a dedicated post. I’ll summarize the highlights here and save the details for future posts.
Before we get into the headlines, here’s some quick context to catch you up:
Almond pollination has become the main source of revenue for beekeepers. Growers pay up to $250 per hive, far higher than what growers of other bee-dependent crops pay.
Beekeepers have adapted hive management to align with the needs of almond growers, shifting focus towards growing hive inventory to increase pollination income.
Climate change and habitat decline have led to poor honey yields, causing beekeepers to become more reliant on pollination income.
The almond industry outlook is grim, as drought conditions and supply chain issues have left many almond growers in a state of financial hardship.
Sting Operation Fails, Bee Rustlers At-Large
Bee rustlers got away clean with another big haul this February. A crime that only a fellow beekeeper could commit, hive theft has grown more common each year as the culprits become bolder and more effective. In 2021, about 600 hives were stolen during almond bloom. This year, thieves got away with 1,036 hives.
The heist has quite a payoff. For 1,000+ hives, the perpetrators can walk away with more than $200,000 in pollination fees alone. It’s the perfect crime; after rustlers transfer the bees into their own hive boxes and ditch the stolen equipment, it’s practically impossible to prove those bees belong to someone else.
Drought Conditions Stifle Honey Production
After pollination fees, honey revenue is the biggest source of income for many beekeepers. But honey yields suffered dramatically thanks to widespread drought conditions spanning nearly the entire western US last summer.
The latest USDA honey report is bleak. Across the country, honey yields were down 14.4% on average. The top 3 states—North Dakota, South Dakota and California— yielded 25% less honey last year than in 2020. Beekeepers in these states produced more than 45% of the nation’s honey in 2020. Last year, their contribution fell to 39%.
Almond Pollination Opportunities ‘Drying Up’?
Drought impacts bees in more ways than just honey production. The water situation in California is dire, and it takes a lot of water to grow almonds. As we wait for the rain to return, the state’s water supply will continue to decline and costs will steadily climb.
Add in the fact that almond exporters are struggling to deliver shipments to international buyers, and the outlook becomes a bit more clear. With supply chain issues threatening their income and water issues driving up their costs, almond growers might not be in a position to bankroll the bee industry for much longer.
Is Hive Health on the Rebound?
Finally, some good news to share! We’ve heard some encouraging reports from insiders who went from orchard to orchard gathering bee health data this February. More hives survived the winter with strong colonies and low presence of disease, resulting in a surplus of hives for almond pollination this year.
Having battled for decades with pests, parasites, diseases and viruses trying to kill their bees, beekeepers are no strangers to adversity. Especially following a 2021 season marred by extreme drought, to produce such healthy hives this season is testament to beekeepers’ ingenuity and tenacity. They’ve fought off everything thrown their way and they’re getting better and better at tackling new challenges as they emerge.
Lawsuit Aims to Sting Counterfeiters
This final story is a bit of a wildcard, but it could completely change the landscape of beekeeping in the US. As I discussed in this 2020 post, American beekeepers have been suffering financially ever since low-quality imported honey started flooding the market in the early 90’s. But a class-action lawsuit spearheaded by the nation’s largest beekeeping operation is trying to fight back.
Though all imported honey is tested for authenticity, beekeepers have always been skeptical. The lawsuit accuses the defendants—a group of importers, packers and a testing lab—of defrauding the honey market by conspiring to pass off fake honey as genuine.
A decision in favor of the plaintiffs would be a monumental victory for US beekeepers. As counterfeits are replaced with authentic honey on grocery shelves across the country, prices will climb and domestic honey production will become lucrative once again. Expect a decision sometime this summer.
See what I mean about all these captivating storylines? Big things are happening in the bee industry and I can’t wait to see how this drama plays out. Beekeepers are taking their fate into their own hands and they’re due for a big win. It certainly seems they’re making all the right moves to set themselves up for long-term success.