Honey production in the United States appears to be on the increase as data show a positive trend for American beekeepers.
A recent report released by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) revealed that American honey producers harvested 178 million pounds of honey in 2014 – up 19 percent from the previous year. Beekeepers also saw colony yields increase 15 percent to 65.1 pounds on a national average.
The NASS survey looked solely at honey production from producers with five or more colonies and did not count colonies where no honey was produced.
The number of honey-producing bee colonies nationally rose 4 percent to 2.74 million as honey prices moved into record-high territory of 216.1 cents per pounds on a national average.
The most prolific honey-producing state was Mississippi, with an average honey yield of 112 pounds per colony, down four pounds on average from the previous year. Several other states also beat the national average in yield, including Montana (88 pounds), North Dakota (86 pounds), Texas (78 pounds), and Nebraska (75 pounds).
California and Arizona numbers trended the other direction as colony numbers fell and honey yield was well below the national average.
California and Arizona beekeepers produced an average of 39 pounds per colony as honey-producing colony numbers in Arizona fell by 3,000 in 2014 to a total of 26,000. California’s honey-producing bee colony numbers fell by 10,000 in 2014 to 320,000, according to the NASS numbers.
The state with the largest honey-producing colony population was North Dakota at 490,000, up 10,000 from the previous year.
Because of the way the agency counts honey-producing colonies by state, the U.S. yield may be understated, according to the USDA, though total honey production would not be impacted by the statistical accounting.
While national numbers look good, Visalia, Calif. beekeeper Steve Godlin says honey production in California has suffered over the years because of drought and foraging opportunities. Godlin makes honey on irrigated and non-irrigated land and rents his bees for pollination services.
While Godlin says it’s a good time to be a beekeeper for several reasons, the attention on the industry has its pluses and minuses.
Colony collapse disorder as it’s been coined is essentially an issue of bee colony die-offs that are not fully understood, though activists claim the use of pesticides and herbicides are the sole cause.
“When I started in this business, the industry standard for colony loss was 10 percent,” he said. “Today 30-35 percent seems acceptable.”
Godlin says reasons for the increased decline in colony numbers may not be simple. Colony collapse can happen because of health issues, queen failures and for other unknown reasons. He said some bees simply flee the colony at the end of the year for reasons not yet known.
Queen health issues are one of several factors Godlin sees. In many cases beekeepers must replace queens multiple times a year because they simply do not survive.
While Godlin’s honey production is good from the sources he has, his costs continue to increase as he must re-queen his colonies one or two times a year. The cost is about $20 per queen, he says.
Add to that the cost of mite treatments at about $5 per colony, plus the alternative feed sources for his colonies, and it’s easy to see how the cost of doing business can increase. Artificial nutritional sources have become increasingly necessary as good foraging opportunities for bees have declined.
Changes in cropping patterns elsewhere in the United States are another issue Godlin must contend with as he seeks foraging locations for his colonies.
Drought is another factor Godlin points to, saying rangeland and natural areas of sage, buckwheat and wildflowers are not as prevalent as they once were. In a word, location is Godlin’s biggest concern as he must continually look for good venues for his bees to forage.
Godlin rents his bees for almond bloom. He also rents them out for melons and squash. He pays a nominal fee to put them in carefully-selected citrus groves for the honey production.
Though almonds are permanent and a relatively stable sources of income for Godlin, the fallowing of annual crops because of California’s drought and reduced water allocations to farmers can hurt beekeepers as well.
Colony numbers can decline to unviable strength in the fall and winter months, according to Godlin.
He does not fully understand why bee colonies have declined so much in recent years.
“I don’t know why their lifespan is reduced,” Godlin says.
Still, he believes that factors ranging from available water, good pollination seasons in almonds and citrus, plus available foraging opportunities can have positive impacts on bee health and overall colony strength.
While health complications from the parasitic Varroa and Tracheal mites are understood as factors underlying colony loss in U.S., Godlin says less is understood about chemical treatments on commercial crops and in other areas where bees forage.
He suspects there could be sub lethal doses of chemicals or a synergism between various chemicals that could cause health problems.
Gordon Wardell, bee expert and director of pollination operations for Paramount Farming, has said similar things in presentations given to various groups, including pest control advisers and growers. Based on his studies, Wardell has proposed altogether eliminating bloom time sprays in almonds, or if absolutely necessary, spraying trees at night when the bees are in the hive.
Wardell has also suggested avoiding tank mixes as less may be understood about the synergy between two chemicals used in tandem when it comes to be health.
He says colony collapse disorder was first coined around 2006 in the wake of significant bee deaths noticed the year before.
Wardell has said that declines in bee health could come from a variety of factors - known and unknown. Studies suggest that young bees shifting from in-hive duties to field work before they are physically mature enough to handle the rigors of collecting nectar, pollen or water, can lead to declining be health.