Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: today’s beekeeping industry might as well be called the pollination service industry. With very few exceptions, beekeeping operations need pollination revenue to survive these days. Fortunately, there’s plenty of money to be made in pollination. Yet it seems like nobody’s happy with the current model. Beekeepers are worried about introducing new stressors like fungicides and travel fatigue to their bees. Growers think they’re not always getting what they pay for. Who’s in the right?
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO DELIVER POLLINATION?
In short, delivering pollination is like orchestrating a symphony: it takes a lot of skill and experience to synchronize different moving pieces and create a harmony. Here are just a few of the many stresses beekeepers must endure to deliver pollination to growers:
Financial risk: Think about it: a beekeeper with 1000 hives loads nearly half his stock, half of his annual earning potential, onto a single 18-wheeler. If anything goes wrong during transit—extreme temperatures, unexpected delays, refusal at the California border station—half their annual income is in jeopardy. This is an extremely risky business move. If the beekeeper gets $175 per hive, that’s a $70,000 load. Losing one load could be the difference between making payroll and laying off a worker or two. And that’s just the take from almond pollination—each healthy hive should bring in a couple hundred more dollars through the rest of the season.
Logistical coordination: Good agriculture truckers are almost as hard to find as unicorns. Truckers carry a huge responsibility, and it’s important that the beekeeper can trust them. Truckers see a load of bees as a two- or three-day job. Beekeepers see a load of bees as their livelihood. There’s another disconnect with risk here: beekeepers face high risk while truckers may lack the knowledge and don’t have much incentive to care.
Supply & demand: This is an interesting piece of the puzzle. At a macroeconomic level, we know that price is determined by supply and demand. Demand for pollination is very predictable. Supply of pollination is not. Most hive losses happen in late summer and during the winter. In colder climates, overwinter hive losses are not as easily inventoried as summer losses since it’s too cold to dig through hives. This is one of many reasons why the market price can change so much in the weeks leading up to pollination season; whether or not it was a good winter for bees isn’t clear until loads are already on their way to California. If it’s a good winter and there are excess bees to rent, growers who wait until the last minute can get a great deal on strong hives. If it’s a bad winter, growers who wait too long will have to dish out top dollar for whatever they can find.
WHAT DO GROWERS WANT?
From our conversations with almond growers, their interests tend to be fairly consistent. Growers want reliability, consistency. Growers stick a seed in the ground, give it food, water and sunlight, then a crop is produced (I know this is a major oversimplification, but bear with me). Pretty straight-forward, right? There are clearly identified jobs to be done and growers know how to direct their workers to complete those jobs.
Bees are a different story. Bees are not a simple input. Growers can watch the bees fly, but they can’t supervise them or direct them. If a worker fails to do a job like apply fertilizer, it’s not hard to find out what went wrong, who to blame and how to fix the issue. If weak bees do a poor job pollinating a section of the orchard, the grower won’t find out in time, the person to blame has already been paid, and there is no fixing the issue until next season. As far as farm inputs go, pollination is something growers feel they have almost no control over.
CANDOR INCREASES CONTRACT VALUE
Bottom line is growers want to know they’re getting what they pay for. Growers can see through the tired claim beekeepers recycle year after year: “bees are dying, I need $5 more per hive”. Growers are not all that different from beekeepers: they want control of their livelihood, they don’t like surprises, they like to see proof.
Beekeepers should take notes from operations like Apis Hive from Colorado, who take an open-book approach by posting their pollination costs and prices online. Full transparency, no gimmicks, no surprises. These guys get it.
What’s a fair price for a pollination deal? It’s whatever value beekeepers can prove they’ve delivered. Beekeepers take on a lot of costs and risks to provide pollination, but at the end of the day, pollination is a service and the clients don’t always feel well-served. It’s the service provider's responsibility to show they’re delivering excellent service.