Second generation beekeeper and 2007 President of the California State Beekeepers Association, Orin Johnson is in the midst of a mystery. While one third of the US’s food supply relies on the pollination of bees, they are rapidly and mysteriously disappearing from what experts have phrased Colony Collapse Disorder. The phrase CCD covers a host of health issues and seems mysterious because nobody has figured what exactly it is…or isn’t. One day a hive is fine and the next day it’s gone or has collapsed.
Orin spends his days scrambling to keep tabs on the health and strength of hives, in hopes he won’t get hit with CCD or the other major problem, bee thievery. He generally spends his working hours trying to figure out the best way to keep his workforce healthy. Bee dependent almond growers have seen their pollination costs quadruple, and scientists are on the trail of unraveling what’s happening and are optimistic something will be known before anyone goes beeless.
Sixty-percent of the US’s commercial bee population gets moved into the Central Valley each Spring to pollinate 615,000 acres of almond trees (2007 CA Almond Board stats) – bearing 1.31 BILLION pounds of nuts – up 17% from the previous year. Other crops can get the pollination job done thanks to birds, bugs and even wind.
2007’s crop was a record crop, and the almond acreage is expected to increase by 22 percent over the next five years (750,000 bearing acres in 2011). The impact on almond growers has added up to about a 20% increase in the cost of pollination over the past 5 years (source: CA Almond Board). Almond farmer Jim Hudelson says this year’s crop looks great and is close to another record. He says pollination costs have quadrupled and he is thankful for how hard the beekeepers are working to keep everyone supplied.
Orin Johnson says among the problems the bee industry faces are health issues a right to farm issue which relates to mandarin citrus. The health issues are varied and include a mystery disease known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), parasites, and even urbanization. Urbanization affects bee health as it shrinks bee pasture. Like grass for cattle, bees need natural areas to “graze” on – a natural diet, rather than any man-made supplement, is optimum for bee nutrition according to Johnson. Aside from the health issues, Johnson cites the growth in popularity of genetically altered plants and seedless mandarins, as other problems jeopardizing the bee population.
The bees are even falling victim to crime as the current trend of declining numbers boosts the value of a healthy hive. According to Johnson, the typical hive thief is someone who’s in the bee business and needs to augment their own hives.
While law enforcement deals with the theft issue, there’s another team looking out for bees at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at U.C. Davis. Eric Mussen has been studying bees for 31 years, a field known as apiculture. He is the leading expert on honey bees in the U.S. because of his vast knowledge of the winged creatures. Eric has become an unofficial bee ambassador. Eric spends the bulk of his time staying up on national and international bee research and then shepherds the practical information from those studies to keep beekeepers informed and up to date on the best practices.
California Heartland’s Abbott Dutton visits Johnson’s bee farm in Hughson as well as Eric Mussen at UC Davis to understand the impact of the current bee decline in California.