Where the Bees Are
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By Michelle Ackerman Our love affair with honey bees runs deep and wide. Cave paintings from Valencia, Spain, tell us we have been collecting honey for 8,000 years. The ancient Egyptians, credited as the world’s first beekeepers, began building hives from clay 3,000 years ago. Today colonies of Apis mellifera, the western or European honey bee, are found on every continent but Antarctica.
USDA estimates there are 2.7 million honey-producing colonies in this country. This equates to more than 135 billion honey bees during peak summer months, or nearly 400 bees for every man, woman, and child.
About 120,000 beekeepers care for these honey bees. They are loosely described as backyard (fewer than 25 hives), sideliner, and commercial (300 or more hives). Backyard and sideliners produce about 40% of the honey extracted annually. Much of it is sold for a premium as local and specialty honey. The balance is produced by about 1,600 commercial beekeepers.
Many may be surprised to learn the top honey-producing state is North Dakota, with 495,000 colonies yielding nearly 39 million pounds of honey, or 26% of the country’s total output in 2020. Other top honey-producing states are South Dakota, California, Montana, Texas, and Florida. Hawaii is the highest-yielding state, with a whopping 105 pounds per colony.
Though honey bees are associated with large expanses of fields and flowers, they are also found in the Sonoran Desert of the Southwest, rooftop hives in New York City, and Anchorage, Alaska.
On the Move, More and More
For centuries, colonies were managed primarily for honey production. Crop pollination was a side benefit to the grower. As large-scale, monoculture agriculture developed and resident colonies became insufficient for pollination, the practice of renting bees arose.
Commercial producers now earn as much from pollination services as honey production, with 30% moving hives cross country during the year. Bees head to California in February to pollinate almonds, plums, and cherries, and then to the Northern Great Plains in early summer to forage and build colony size. Like snowbirds, they head back to California or the South in early fall for overwintering.
Almond production has greatly impacted commercial beekeeping. The seventh most valuable agricultural commodity in the U.S., almonds require twice as many bees for pollination as other crops (two hives per acre). California almond farmers single-handedly forked out 80% of the $320 million paid for pollination services in 2017. Almonds are not the only crops requiring pollination in this region though. Washington and Oregon farmers paid $16.5 million to pollinate crops, primarily berries and fruit.
For the greatest value to both farmer and beekeeper, pollination colonies are managed somewhat differently than permanent hives. Colony development must be carefully managed, timing growth to prevent swarms and capitalize on foraging opportunities. Nearly all commercial beekeepers introduce new queens to the hive each year.
The country can be divided into seven geographical regions based on flora, topography, and beekeeping methods.
Northeast: Beekeepers in the Northeast are challenged with severe winters, short summers, and hilly or mountainous terrain. Though nature provides a host of flora, no single plant is a major source of nectar. Rather, honey is bland. Honey production varies widely, from about 30 pounds per hive in Maine and New Jersey to more than 55 pounds in New York. Beekeepers in the Northeast experience some of the country’s highest winter losses. For extra protection, hives may be “packed” by wrapping them in insulation and tar paper, leaving just the entrance exposed.
Southeast: The Southeast is the winter home for many northern hives. As well, many queen breeders and package bee shippers are based here. Because the Southeast has a long harvest season, hives can be moved among crops and varietal honeys produced. Some of the most sought honeys are made in the Southeast, including two non-granulating varieties — sourwood, an almost water white honey, and tupelo, famous for its high levulose content. Beekeepers worry little about winter preparation. Rather, their concerns are to provide shade during summer and ample food stores in fall for rapid colony build-up in early spring.
North-Central: Bees in this region feed on a variety of plants from spring until frost. Most honey comes from alfalfa, soybeans, sweet clover, and true clover. Less desirable grades come from aster, goldenrod, and smartweed. With a wide range of conditions, beekeepers manage hives in a variety of ways.
Plains: Honey produced in the Plains comes primarily from sweet clover and alfalfa, mostly produced by commercial beekeepers. This region is home to the highest population of bees, with about 850,000 colonies. Success here is largely attributed to a high concentration of land in the government’s Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to allow fields to lie fallow. The natural flora and lack of pesticides make it desirable forage ground for beekeepers. In 2021, acres enrolled in CRP grassland in the U.S. doubled, with the largest gains in Colorado, South Dakota, Nebraska, and New Mexico.
Mountains: Though landmass is large, bee quantity is small. The major source of honey is alfalfa, which is almost entirely dependent on irrigation. Winters are extremely cold and dry, so hives may be packed for protection. Two-thirds of the beekeepers are commercial.
Southwest: In this hot, semiarid region, the major sources of honey are alfalfa, cotton, and mesquite. Beekeepers must provide summer shade and ensure water is available for colony survival.
West: Because of variations in the environment, there are no standard beekeeping methods. Rainfall ranges from one to two inches in the desert to more than 60 in the rain forest; elevation from below sea level to snow-capped mountains; and temperatures from dry and hot to humid and extremely cold. A large portion of the nation’s queens is reared in the Sacramento Valley.
Same Foes, Same Goals
Though they tend their ladies differently, all beekeepers fight the same battles with disease, pests, and pesticides. Loss across all colonies from April 2020 to April 2021 (Bee Informed Partnership) is projected to be 45.5%. The rate is 1.8% higher than the previous year and 6.1% higher than the past decade. Backyard beekeepers report losing more bees in winter than summer. Their commercial peers lose colonies equally by season.
As troubling as the loss is the perception of what constitutes tolerable losses. Today, beekeepers deem a winter loss of 23% as being acceptable. A decade ago, they strove for rates closer to 18%. As well, honey production per hive continues to decline by about .5 pounds per hive per year. From 2000 to 2009, the average yield was 69 pounds. It fell to 57 pounds in the most recent decade and stood at 54.5 pounds in 2020.
Whether we keep a few hives in Maine or thousands in California, we can all benefit from a reverse in this trend because we have a common goal — to continue our romance with the beloved honey bee.
MICHELE ACKERMAN is an urban beekeeper in greater Columbus, Ohio, and proprietor of Blondie’s Bees and Balms (bees.micheleackerman.com). She writes a blog, The Bad Beekeeper, to keep bee enthusiasts in the loop about her journey with honey bees. She also maintains about 150 different varieties of flowers, shrubs, and trees.
Originally published in the June/July 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.