A Bee Mogul Confronts the Crisis in His Field
Beekeeping on an industrial scale is central to American agriculture, and “colony collapse” has proved to be a severe test.
By STEPHANIE STROM
Feb 16 2017
KERN COUNTY, Calif. — A soft light was just beginning to outline the Tejon Hills as Bret Adee counted rows of wizened almond trees under his breath.
He placed a small white flag at the end of every 16th row to show his employees where they should place his beehives. Every so often, he fingered the buds on the trees. “It won’t be long,” he said.
Mr. Adee (pronounced Ay-Dee) is America’s largest beekeeper, and this is his busy season. Some 92,000 hives had to be deployed before those buds burst into blossom so that his bees could get to the crucial work of pollination.
But it is notable that he has a business at all. For the last decade, a mysterious plague has killed billions of bees every year.
“Every year at this time of year, we wonder are there going to be enough bees,” said Bob Curtis, director of agricultural affairs at the Almond Board, a trade group for almond growers.
Pollination services, as the bees’ work is known in the industry, has risen this year to between $180 to $200 a hive from an average of $154 a hive in 2006, Mr. Curtis said.
There would be no almond crop — not to mention avocados, apples, cherries and alfalfa — without honeybees. Of the 100 crops that account for 90 percent of the food eaten around the globe, 71 rely on bee pollination, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
Demand for Mr. Adee’s bees is soaring in part because a poorly understood plague, known as colony collapse, has decimated the nation’s bee population in the last decade. The cause is widely debated: Some cite climate change affecting habitat, others the proliferation of certain pesticides, but most believe the problem has multiple factors.
Whatever the reason, in the year that ended in April 2016, 44 percent of the overall commercial bee population died. In a typical year before the plague, only 10 percent to 15 percent would have died, and Mr. Adee’s losses would have been between 3 and 7 percent.
“Over the last five years, I think this small industry could easily have lost $1.2 billion worth of bees,” Mr. Adee said. To put that in context: The total United States commercial bee business had a value of only about $500 million in 2012, according to the Honey Bee Advisory Council, created by Monsanto in 2012 to study its impact on bee health.
Nor is the problem limited to honeybees. The bumblebee was scheduled to be listed under the Endangered Species Act on Feb. 10, but the Trump administration put the plan aside, pending further review. The E.P.A. has not responded to requests for comment.
This is pollination season for America’s almond trees. As a result, in recent weeks almost two-thirds of the country’s commercial bees have started buzzing through California’s orchards. Some of the bees have been shipped in from as far away as Florida.
Adee Honey Farms has some 92,000 hives, each with roughly 40,000 bees, about 3.5 billion bees in total. Most spend the winter here in hives scattered across a 3,000-acre cattle ranch surrounded by low hills with easy access to water, a necessity for such a concentrated population.
During pollination season, the bees are loaded onto a dozen flatbed trucks and nine or 10 tractor-trailers and ferried to work, starting first in the almond orchards in late January, then moving to other California crops like broccoli and avocados. About 10 percent of the Adee bees are dispatched to Oregon and Washington State, where they pollinate cherry and apple trees.