By the time this reaches you, our colonies will be expanding the brood nests in earnest and almond pollination will be well underway. It will be very interesting to see what this winter’s colony loss rate will turn out to be statewide and nationwide. Preliminary reports are pretty dire, and this is not a surprise given the reported season-long high mite counts by both hobbyist and commercial beekeepers alike. I would wager that our industry will exceed last year’s annual average loss rate of 40 percent. Just as Harry predicted in his last “Message from the President,” this trend spells trouble for our industry. How long can our industry sustain losses at this scale? I do not have an answer to this question, but beekeepers tend generally to be a resourceful and resilient lot.
The awareness of the essential role of honey bees in our food production system continues to grow, but in my opinion still remains underappreciated. This is an area in which I think our association can play a vital role. We have done well as a group fighting restrictive beekeeping ordinances, supporting research, and spreading best-management practices. What else can we do?
Those of us who make our living keeping bees would be well served to understand and act upon an economic principle known as the Price Elasticity of Demand (PED). In a nutshell (or should I say an almond hull), PED is a measurement in the change in demand for a good or service relative to a change in its price. An elastic demand curve for a good or service shows us that demand for a given commodity is very sensitive to a change in price of that commodity. Thus, when the price goes up for a given good or service, demand tends to decrease, and conversely when the price goes down for the same good or service, demand increases. Many commodities have an inelastic or relatively inelastic demand curve, meaning that demand does not fluctuate much with price. These tend to be goods or services for which there are no readily available substitutes. Clearly, pollination services would fall into this category. Let’s take almond pollination as an example. In order to maximize yields and obtain crop insurance, almond growers must rent at least 2 hives per acre. Proper stocking of hives per acre can make as much as a 90 percent difference in crop yield. Almond trees are a long-term investment, and there is currently no substitute for commercial pollination services. Unless the honey bee supply drastically increases overnight, beekeepers could substantially raise rental prices and demand would fluctuate very little. In short, they cannot do it without us, and we should and could charge more for our services. This is not about sticking it to the growers. Farming is a tough sport no matter what one grows, with plenty of uncertainties from water, weather, pests, to tariffs. However, honey bees will never get the respect they deserve unless we charge what they are worth. We tend to be our worst enemy in this regard. Perhaps, if pollination prices were significantly higher, growers would stop using untested tank mix partners. This is especially important given recent studies showing fungicides, long thought to be relatively safe for bees, can increase the toxicity of other pesticides 100X: digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1363&context=entomologyfacpub. There are also recent studies showing common herbicides negatively alter the honey bee gut microbiome. For an interesting read on the subject, check out: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180924174506.htm and www.gotscience.org/2018/02/honeybees-attracted-common-fungicide-herbicide/. Higher rental fees will make replacing annual colony losses much easier and allow us to more easily fund research and timely inputs into our operations to reduce annual losses. Steeper rental prices will also incentivize all stakeholders to go to great lengths to protect pollinators and fund research to a much larger extent.
We should also continue to encourage hobbyists to participate in the master beekeeper program and to join their regional associations. These are some of the most valuable tools we have for preventing mite bombs and spreading awareness about best management practices. The trend in backyard beekeeping continues to grow, and this can be a good thing if and only if good animal husbandry is practiced at large. Anomalous post treatment mite infections continue to plague our industry.
I would also like to encourage our members to support movements that create quality substantial pollinator habitat, specifically dual-use solar culture, also known as agrivoltaics. This is an exciting opportunity to work with utility-scale solar companies to farm large tracts of land for pollinator habitat. This model offers a long-term solution for keeping land in legal farm use while simultaneously creating high-quality bee forage. To that end, I would like to thank Dr. Rodia for his indispensable testimony at the the last Department of Land Conservation and Development hearing. There are some very restrictive rules being proposed that will severely limit where these solar projects will be allowed to develop and create pollinator habitat on farm land. We are proposing that, when solar projects are cited on farm land, they remain in legal farm use and are managed for pollinator habitat. The deadline for written public comment is May 7 and can be submitted either by email or by snail mail to:
Rules Coordinator, Department of Land Conservation & Development, 635 Capitol Street NE, Suite 150, Salem OR 97301
In closing, I would like to thank all the volunteers past and present who help to make this such a great organization. Thank you for your valuable time and effort. We couldn’t do it without you. May your colonies grow fast, divides be plentiful, and your flows be fulsome.