Beekeeping / Maintenance and How-To

Some Notes About This Year’s Bee Shortage

Last Saturday, my husband and I attended a Southwest Michigan beekeepers conference.  It was exciting because Michael Bush was the keynote speaker and it was small enough that there were plenty of opportunities to chat with him, one on one. He’s a natural beekeeping god, so that was a pretty cool opportunity.

We also attended sessions on general beekeeping, Northern beekeeping, and hive splitting (some new methods were discussed). We learned so much that I seriously came home with a headache! I swear it was the new information bounding around in my brain. So I figure I’ll disseminate the info over a few different post because I really need to weed through my thoughts and notes. (And then I’ll return to the ever-upbeat topic of: things that kill your hives in the winter, ha!).

We attended one session given by Meghan Milbrath of Sand Hill Apiaries and Northern Beekeepers Association. She was so interesting, that we went to a beginning beekeepers information session in the afternoon, just to hear more from her!

I’d like to address some of the things we learned over several posts, but one topic that we continued to hear about was the bee shortage.

These days, even the nightly news will run the occasional “save the bees” story. Most people seem to know that honeybees are important and that their numbers are dwindling, but I think many people think of the honeybee as yet another endangered species. Sure, we think to ourselves, it’s sad, but then we go back to our daily lives and forget about it.

I have a very intelligent co-worker who shocked me when he went on and on at lunch about how much he hates anything that stings or bites and he will “insecticide the hell” out of a bee, a wasp, or a hornet any day of the week. This is upsetting to me, obviously, because I just love bees and am endlessly fascinated by them, but this kind of thinking also terrifies me.  We NEED pollinators of all types (even those that sting). To eat. To survive. It’s just that simple.

So here are some interesting/disturbing take-aways from Saturday:

– The varroa mite (something beekeepers are always on the lookout for) decimated the feral bee population in this country just a decade ago. In fact, researchers pretty much refer to “bee history” as before varroa and after. I didn’t realize that we, as a nation, last nearly all of our feral bee colonies and we certainly lost some large, old ones. As a result, bees living “in captivity” are hugely important to this nation’s food supply and plant life. Most hives these days are all originating from a handful of commercial keepers.

(Varroa mite)

– There are about 2.5 million hives managed by beekeepers in this country and 1.5 million of those are commercial hives. These hives move about the country seasonally and pollinate as needed:

– They pretty much follow this schedule a;l together, so if you consider the fact that ⅓ of our food supply is dependent on the pollination of bees, you might find it a bit unsettling to know that so many of our bees are together traveling the country. A weather disaster or a virus or mite would affect this system on the large scale. This isn’t some alarmist theory, this is a real concern.

(photo source)


– Our commercial farming industry is made up of monocultures, so these bees are being trucked out to California to pollinate almond trees, for example. California has almost 1 million acres of almond trees and under and around these trees? Dirt. The bees can gather nectar and pollen from the almond blossoms, but nothing else. Bees are living things. You can imagine that a diet consisting of one food source is not optimum. The bees find the same types of habitats in citrus groves, etc. So now we have the majority of the bees we RELY on living and reproducing in the same territory as well as eating a less-than=nutritious diet. We see little genetic diversity and a lot of susceptibility to disease in these populations. As a result, these bees are treated with fungicides and antibiotics and you’d be silly to think none of this residue ends up in your honey or bee byproduct goods.  

(CA holding yard – source)                                          (Almond trees – source)

– So more people should raise bees in their backyards and small fields. Seems like a great solution. In fact, the keynote speaker presented “Four Tips to Better Beekeeping” and #2 was “Raise Your Own and Buy Local.”  Here’s why that’s not so simple. There are two ways for a backyard beekeeper to begin raising bees:

1. Buy a nuc. This is basically a mini-hive. You get five frames: a queen, some workers, some brood, maybe a frame of honey. It can go directly into a hive and all you have to do is watch it grow.  This is the best way to start because nucs are sold local, so you’ll support a local beekeeper and also obtain bees (usually) that have climatized to your area. The problem? This winter, for example, was brutal…for everyone. On Saturday, one woman explained, in tears, that she lost 19 of her 20 hives so far this year. As a result, nucs are not readily available. Any nucs that are available won’t be ready until around the first of June. The problem with this is you’ve missed one opportunity to make a split (a great way to increase your hive). Prices are high and many beekeepers are taking names, but making no guarantees because winter isn’t even over yet. A lot can happen between now and June.

(This was our first nuc)

2. So if you can’t get a nuc, then you can order a package of bees. If you order a package, you’ll get a little wooden screen house with a queen in the middle (in a little cage) and, literally, a box full of bees. No comb, no honey. So you, in all seriousness, shake the bees out of the box into an empty hive and hope that (1) they accept the queen when you let her out of her little cage and (2) work together efficiently. Well these packages come from the commercial keepers in the south and west. However, there is such demand in the commercial world, that even they are low on bees. One major company, AWS, was at the conference and they told us they only had 400 packages left to sell this season. This is from a guy who works in hundreds of thousands. He said, they could sell out in a day or a week, but they were certainly going to sell out. We went to this guy’s session and he flat out said, “there aren’t enough bees to go around and if backyard keepers don’t start buying and selling amongst themselves, then they will be out of the game because the commercial keepers [himself included] have to fulfill commercial orders first, obviously.” Also, fewer packages means prices go up.

(a package of bees)

– Lastly, Canada wants our bees. Canada would like to open the border to be able to buy U.S. bees because this bee-shortage-thing is not unique to the United States. Various speakers at the workshop, all representing different interests, all agreed that if the sale of packaged bees across the U.S.-Canada border happens, then packages will triple in price IF they are even available for the small guys (like us).

So we left feeling this urgency to get more bees to replace our lost hives and to keep these alive, but also with the fear that there just aren’t enough bees for small fries like us.

We’re really nursing our remaining hive, hoping to keep that one going. We did order two packages and put our names on a waiting list for a nuc, but after that, it’s all up to Mother Nature.

All I know is if the U.S. doesn’t make some big changes soon, we’ll be pollinating our produce (what’s left of it) like this:

(photo source)                                                                                                     (photo source)


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