Honey Bee Biology

  Honey Bee Biology  - April 2014

Protecting Your Bees with the High Cost of Packages

and Swarm Catching

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


The cost of a three-pound bee package broke the three-digit price barrier, now blasting past $100. I didn’t hear a sonic BOOM, like breaking the sound barrier, unless you count the collective screams of beekeepers, especially the ones who remember the price of their first package, some decades ago. Mine was a wee eight bucks back in the 1960’s.

As beekeepers we have always known the value of bees. Fortunately, many other people now are beginning to understand the importance of bees. On the other hand, making that “bees are valuable” message clear to non-beekeepers, some still stuck in archaic thinking, is not always easy: the simple-minded “bees are just bugs,” which easily strays to the deadly “just kill them all.” Even though we must endure the package cost, here is a quick, clear way to relay at least the monetary part of the value message: a typical spring swarm, or starting colony, is worth about $100 (for a swarm the size a little less than a basketball). In my negotiations with people who could hurt my bees, I use this $100 imagery to help protect them.

When I rent bees for pollination and I want to impress upon busy farmers that my bees are valuable – so be careful with pesticides – I tell them that times have changed. The replacement costs of bees are high. Figure at least $100 for just the bees. Moreover, farmers have seen swarms. Mentally connecting a swarm with $100 hopefully will stop bees from being thought of as mere expendable bugs.

Anyone applying pesticides should see bees as valuable, and now use their easy-to-remember price tag – $100. For example a neighbor has a large garden across the field from one of my apiaries. Before I moved bees to that location, he told me that most of his garden production was poor, no matter how much fertilizer and water he applied in recent years. I did not find that surprising for a rural area after varroa mites eliminated most of the local feral bees. At one time those bees pollinated his plants for free like invisible magic elves. Who really cared about them? If they got in the way, it was convenient to spray and “just kill them all.” Right? Wrong! Pamper those plants, like melons and cucumbers, all you want, but without pollination, it is a lot of work and expense for nearly nothing, except a harvest of disappointment. Having seen the before and after, without and with bees, my neighbor knows their pollination value – crystal clear.

Now upon seeing me, say at our local country store, my neighbor raves about the wonderful bees in his loud rich booming voice, reminiscent of a radio announcer. Curious ears, shoppers pausing nearby, can eavesdrop without a bit of strain, and listen in on his pollination message, ironically while I listen too. In the garden, the bees work right beside him, each doing their jobs. Now he looks for the bees coming to his various flowers. He definitely becomes concerned when they are absent, say on cool mornings. Far from being invisible, the bees have ascended to their rightful place as welcomed companions. He enjoys his garden, which stems back to a family farming history. All his hard work pays off, bringing pride and satisfaction, part of a heavy harvest. And that is fine with me.

Monetarily though, the true value of the bees, through their pollination, has missed its mark. There are costs for the other production inputs: the fertilizer, seeds, and even a small cost for the well water (the electricity to pump it and the cost for buying and maintaining the pipes and well pump, spread over the decades). These costs are all readily recognized when figuring the expense of the food production from the garden. How much did my neighbor pay for the pollination, for my bees clearly coming to his garden, turning a depressing wasteland money pit into a place of produce wealth? Was it $60 per colony like I charge farmers growing their crops, when I haul hives to their fields? No. Since the bees flew to his garden on their own, his (direct) cost for the pollination was a whopping big – Zero. This is called spillover pollination. For pollination that occurs from managed colonies, however, for some reason, there is no fee.

With my out-apiaries scattered in rural areas, other nearby neighbors have told me about harvest rebounds in their gardens too. I have made a point of telling them my colony rental fee of $60, to indicate the value of bee pollination, and indirectly the value of my nearby bees. Of course, now I also use the concept of a swarm being worth $100. Since these neighbors are close to my apiaries, I want them to understand I have no problems with them getting valuable pollination for free. That is just the way nature works. Unexpectedly, a complication has arisen calling for diplomatic flexibility that other beekeepers may encounter.
During the season, I move numerous colonies for pollination at distant farms and for scientific research. For apiaries near these large gardens, where families rely on produce as part of their food income (for canning too, providing food into the winter, not just the warm months), people become concerned when seeing hives leave the apiaries. To calm those anxieties, I tell these families that I will leave some hives at their nearby apiary locations, and not to worry when the hive numbers decrease. Sometimes this restriction becomes a problem when I need many hives, but I just need to plan on it. Even with some hives restricted to their out-apiaries, I never ask these families for any produce in trade for what would have been spillover pollination. I just figure they are trying to provide healthy food on tight budgets. From the value of bees, through their spillover pollination, I (the beekeeper) seem to have “acquired” some responsibility. If they offer to let me pick some produce from their gardens, I diplomatically thank them, but I never, never, do that. It just looks bad to pick produce when the owner is not around, and besides fundamentally, it is their property. Especially now with readily available motion-triggered cameras shooting pictures easily taken out of context, such a kind offer could lead to trouble. If they hand me produce or put it in my truck, then I accept it, but I do not ask for it. (I started this policy when I began renting 200 hives for crop pollination in the 1980’s, long before such cameras, and cucumber yields were 12 tons per truck load.)

....to read the complete article please click here to subscribe