05 Mike Burgett – Honeybee Pollination Markets


Speaker 1: From the Oregon State University Extension Service, this is Pollination, a podcast that tells the stories of researchers, land managers, and concerned citizens making bold strides to improve the health of pollinators.

I'm your host, Dr. Adoni Melopoulos, assistant professor in pollinator health in the Department of Horticulture. Today's podcast focuses on honeybee pollination markets, and there's really nobody better qualified to talk on this topic than emeritus professor Mike Brigette from Entomology here at Oregon State University. Mike has been part of the faculty since 1974 and has done a huge amount of work on apricultural but what we're going to focus on today is this survey of beekeepers and growers in the Pacific Northwest in terms of their pollination markets. This podcast is going to really cover how that survey came about, some of the unique pollination scenarios here in the Pacific Northwest, and what an analysis of pollination markets can tell us about the threat of the food system to pollinator decline. I was able to catch Mike just before he took off from Northern Thailand where he currently does a lot of work on the reproduction ecology of Asian honeybees and stingless bees.

So here we go with Mike Brigette. I'm really pleased today to have as a guest Mike Brigette, professor emeritus here at Oregon State University and we're going to be talking today about pollination markets and a survey that's been going on for 30 years here at Oregon State University looking at pollination markets. Why don't you start Mike by just telling us a little bit about pollination markets and like where are bees in the Pacific Northwest being used for pollination and how do beekeepers and growers come to these arrangements?

Speaker 2: Well, firstly, and any thank you very much for inviting me to join you. Pollination, I came, excuse me, let me back up a little bit. I came to Oregon State University as an assistant professor in 1974 and quickly came to realize that Oregon, especially Western Oregon, is now what we call super honey country like Western Canada. So for beekeepers here, commercial beekeepers here, if you want to pay your rent, you want to pay your mortgage, you rent your bees for pollination. And it was very, very universal and there are a wide variety of crops in the state that require insect-mediated pollination or to set it through your seed. So I began in 1986, a survey to look at this, but the pollination need that we have here in Oregon and Washington is dominated by the tree fruit industry, apples, pears, and cherries. Huge acreages devoted to these crops. We also grow a large number of minor crops that while not excessive in acreage are present and require bee pollination.

Such things as cranberry industry are expanding blueberry industry now, soft fruit industry with blackberries, raspberries, marion berries, poison berries. These are all crops that without mediated controlled commercial managed pollination, as I like to call it, fruit set and seed set is going to be down. So beekeepers and growers of these crops over the years have entered into these agreements where user-grower will contract with a beekeeper to have X number of hives available on a given date to pollinate this crop. And it's a matter of economic survival for the commercial bee industry.

Speaker 1: It's real interesting. We were talking about coming to Oregon and seeing the beekeeping industry before these pollination markets really started to come into formation. Can you explain a little bit about how these markets come into being and why a lot there's a seems to be a lot of crops that benefit from bees that don't have markets? How do these markets come about and what was the impulse for them?

Speaker 2: Actually, when I got here, I would say that the markets were already here and especially the most important crop to Oregon and Washington beekeepers isn't grown in Oregon or Washington. It's grown in California and those are almonds. And the varieties of almonds grown all require cross-pollination and the acreage devoted to almonds has been on the increase for the past 40 years dramatically on the increase. So it was pretty standard for most commercial beekeepers in Oregon, Washington and Idaho that sometime in January you packed up your bees and you moved them to California to pollinate almonds. And it was a good deal economically and also biologically because you're taking your bees from the Pacific Northwest in midwinter and moving them into at least a late spring like climate and it boosted colony growth. And it puts you in the heart of the queen production area, Central Valley, California. So you're down there as an Oregon beekeeper and you can make arrangements for obtaining new queens, re-queening regimen for your hives while you're down there pollinating almonds.

It just has a great deal of benefit. The apple industry here, you've asked a very good question regarding, let's go back to Pacific Northwest. The apple industry here is old and how long ago commercial pollination was taken into account in the production chain that results from a flower to a fruit is unknown historically. Certainly when I came here, if you talk to a commercial beekeeper in Oregon, they were all going to almonds and depending upon then your geographical location, east or west Oregon, you would then come back and do at least one what I call tree fruit pollination, either apples or pears or sweet cherries and in some of these growing regions you can't, you have to target one of those because there can be a bloom overlap. But a common thing was leave, go to California, pollinate almonds, cross the state line into Medford, the Rogue River Valley, do a pear pollination which is earlier than the rest of the state, then continue, you move north and do another tree fruit pollination either in the Lyman Valley, the Columbia Gorge, the Yakima Valley.

So it was pretty standard for a commercial beekeeper. Following tree fruit, then you have all kinds of options, soft fruit coming on in April and May, legume seed production in the Lyman Valley in June and July. Big, minor market is vegetable seed production and these especially with carrots and onions and usually hybrid varieties, so they're good grower. Just absolutely dependent on good pollination to produce economic yields here. So what I have seen over my time here is that if you would these markets have tightened and they've become more responsive to grower needs, again, I'll go back to this is not great honey country, you don't have an option of, well, I'll use my bees to make huge honey crops or I'll rent my bees for pollination. The huge honey crops are not here in Western Oregon or Western Washington, so you are restricted to pollination rental being the major source of your income flow.

Speaker 1: So if I can just maybe we can conclude this section, I just want to ask you this quick question. It seemed like in the 1980s there was a lot of work to convince growers of the value of pollination. Can you walk us through, it seemed very successful in retrospect to see we did a really good job of that or did we?

Speaker 2: No, I think we did. I think we did. One of the, I had several grower funded projects on looking at the quality of bees being rented for pollination. And one of these was in 1984, it was paid for by the Wasco County Fruit League and we went up, myself and a team went up to Columbia Gorge and we just examined the strength of honey bee colonies being rented for pollination. And what I realized at that time was that growers are not beekeepers. They want the bees present during bloom time and they want those bees out of there during the un-bloom time because of spray schedules. So they rely on this second party, the beekeeper, to provide them a quality product. And I wrote an extension, a Pacific Northwest extension publication called Evaluating Bee Iser Pollination and it went through for the growers and very often for beekeepers, what is an adequate colony?

And at the time, the Oregon Department of Agriculture had requirements on what is a grade A colony, what's a grade B colony. And we found that growers were just completely, not completely, but the majority of growers were very, very ignorant about what's inside that white box. And also there were beekeepers that could benefit from some information on how good are the colonies you're providing this grower for that set fee. So that, I thought that publication which has been revised several times has been very, very helpful to both sides of the equation to the beekeeper and especially to the grower.

Speaker 1: So one way that the markets form is a professionalization of the whole system that the growers really know what they're getting and the beekeepers.

Speaker 2: Absolutely, absolutely. And another area where I was very active, my position at OSU was both formal instruction, research and extension, but going out and meeting with grower groups and essentially discussing this publication, what is a hive of bees? What should you as a grower expect? And another question was density, how many colonies should I be putting for my X number of acres of given crop? An interesting example of this was strawberry production, which has been declining in the there's still a strawberry industry and it was much stronger 40, 20, 30 years ago. But many growers were producing strawberries on relatively small fields and not even running bees. They were getting what we call the background native pollination. Honeybees are here living in feral conditions in the woods in the trees. We have bumblebees here, we have solitary bee species. But what I call the background environmental pollination level was high enough that strawberry growers were getting by without running bees. Well, then the parasitic might show up in the mid 80s and later 80s. Of honeybees.

Right. And feral colonies were severely impacted by this and the strawberry growers realized, wow, we just don't have the bees we used to. Ergo, we better start running colonies. So here was a new market to develop because previous to the introduction of the parasitic mites, there were enough, there was a large enough background environmental pollination, you could get by with it. But that's a kind of a rare example to, when you look at the major crops that we produce here, the tree fruits, for 100 years, this industry, this tree fruit industry has relied on self-stero varieties of apples, pears, and cherries and that you must have cross pollination. So with those people, it was, well, are you using enough bees?

And are you, are they being introduced to the fields at the appropriate time? You don't want a colony of bees going in too early. You don't want a colony of bees going in too late in the bloom. So a matter of education on, on how many bees, colonies should you be using? What is the strength of those colonies in timing? I think we improved that in a major way.

Speaker 1: Well, welcome back. So let's talk a little bit more about this survey that you started in the 1980s. Why did you decide to start collecting statistics on these pollination markets in the 1980s? And what was the primary motivation behind starting the survey? And where did you, what did you have in mind for it at the time that you started it?

Speaker 2: Well, I mentioned the work we'd done up in Columbia Gorge on colony strength. And I had a similar project that was funded by Cranberry growers. We went down to Southwest Coast and looked a lot of hives of bees in Cranberries and noticed quite a disparity between beekeepers in terms of how much they were charging for a colony.

So it just brought to mind that we have, at the moment, at the time, we had great ignorance in this. There was, what are beekeepers charging? So it'd be good to know and how, especially I wanted, I was personally interested in how much of a beekeeper's income is dependent on pollination rental. So I started this survey in 1986, which targeted commercial beekeepers. Initially, the first couple years, just in Oregon, and I expanded it to the state of Washington, considering there were sister states and that while the Columbia River might be a political boundary, to me, it's just a river.

You can see conditions are the same. Between our two states at the time, and we're here talking mid-80s into the 90s, there's probably a category of 40 commercial beekeepers, which doesn't sound like a lot, but these are the people responsible for 80% of the hives of bees in the two states. So I was able to put together a survey, send to them, and ask them questions on where are you renting your bees? When are you doing this?

How much are you charging? And how many colonies do you own, which is a very slippery number because it can change dramatically in the course of one year. But from this, I was able to begin to paint a picture on how important pollination income was to a commercial beekeeper in the Pacific Northwest.

There are geographical differences between Eastern Oregon and Washington Western based on climate and crop availability, natural flora, the botany of the area. But I continued to do this and actually continued to do it beyond my retirement to where I ended up with a 25 year database. And as it turns out, no one else in America was doing this.

Speaker 1: So it strikes me nobody in the world has done this to be I

Speaker 2: didn't realize how empty the niche was. But I was pleased probably in the early 90s to when I was contacted by the California State Beekeeping Association, as an association wanted to do a similar survey to get a better picture. And from data I've seen from them, it's interesting. If you look at a Western Oregon, Western Washington commercial beekeeper, in the course of a year, approximately 75% of their income flow is from pollination rental. Wow. In California, it's about 50%.

Really. And you and I've had former students of mine and others get interested in this to where we're starting to see some data being generated in this general area of pollination economics in the East Coast. But I still contend that I mean my beekeeping experience has been as a grad student in New York State, a fair amount of time in the state of Florida, and here in the Northwest that here in the Northwest, we a commercial beekeepers is absolutely dependent on pollination income. The options for you to make money from a hive of bees are limited here and pollination is number one. And as my survey data has changed or shown over the years, the amount of money you generate from a hive of bees and renting it multiple times during the course of a season is just about equal to the amount of money you have to spend to keep that hive healthy and productive. So the pollination income that you generate kind of gives you a net zero in the sense of how much I'm inputting to keep this colony alive and healthy and the income I get from it.

In pollination. Therefore, what you are producing by way of primarily honey production is where your real profit is. And that can really vary depending upon your beekeeper management scheme, the weather in a given year. So there's still a lot of variability in the system, but as I have spoken in the past, what happens is your pollination income is your fiscal backbone. That's what you can dependably rely on year to year.

Speaker 1: I'd like to pick up on that thought there and take it a little further because I want you to talk a little bit about the trends you've seen in the last 30 years and this issue of profitability because it strikes me to make a system dynamic. You need profits to, you know, you need to capitalize trucks. You need to be able to, how is it that this pollination market seems so dynamic yet profits seem to be so tight? Let's start maybe with a simpler question to get there is what happened to trends in the last 30 years, just increasing dependency?

Speaker 2: I have often been quoted as saying pollination is the cheapest crop insurance a grower can get. I don't care if you're growing apples in New York State, Washington, Oregon, or cranberries in New Jersey or Oregon. You're renting bees not to guarantee a crop. You're renting bees to guarantee against crop failure. I've done some studies on several crops to where you say, okay, for the grower, how much did it cost, how much income did you generate from one acre of say apples?

And that's X number of dollars. All right, how many dollars did you spend on pollination management? And it works out over time that you were as a grower, your pollination costs are less than 2% of your total income from that acre of crop.

So to me, I look upon that as you're paying an insurance premium of 2% and that's cheap. So what's happened, especially starting in the mid-80s, for 30 years now is the introduction of these parasitic mites has, in some people's eyes, reduced the number of colonies available for pollination. So growers have a greater appreciation of, wow, this is a valuable input and I better take more care of us seeing that it exists. So the greatest example of this has been the almond industry. I mean, almond pollination was a nice check, but it wasn't paying all the bills. And especially in the last 10 years, starting in about 2005, almond prices have tripled from what they used to be.

Just incredible. It's astounding, but it's a figure that I think represents the reasonable worth of that hive of bees to that almond grower. And other crops have, in essence, shirt-tailed on that, especially the tree food industry. Going back a bit, one of the new crops in this state, new meaning, it's about 30 years old, is this oil seed crop called Metaphome, the Nancy's Alba, which was developed here at OSU and some other university inputs. But it's grown as an oil seed crop here in the Walnut Valley.

When farmers first start growing it, it's, oh yeah, OSU has said it needs bees for pollination, so I'll get some bees. But it was a brand new market and nobody knew what to charge. But because it's a relatively limited market, geographically some critical commercial beekeepers in Central, especially the Central Walnut Valley, said, let's not be undercutting each other. Let's settle on a pretty reasonable price, which they did, because in the term of my survey it was interesting to me to see beekeeper A charging one price and beekeeper B charging perhaps 50% higher.

But with Metaphome, everyone was centered around at the time a $35 per hive center point, which was interesting. One of the problems in the beekeeping industry was this cutthroat. And this was another reason I had initiated this pollination survey, was that the survey produced average rental fees for each crop. And a commercial beekeeper could look at that and say, oh, I'm pollinating sweet cherries. The average rental fee is $45 a colony, but I'm only charging 40.

What's wrong with me? Or should I be charging 45? Because the market is burying it. So I think the survey had, in that way, a positive influence on getting colony pollination fees on an upward momentum to where they more accurately reflect the value.

Speaker 1: Giving beekeepers a sense of what the market provides. I mean, if you look

Speaker 2: in 1986, well, the survey produces what I call an average colony rental price, but that is some mathematical manipulations on all crops that are reported in the survey, all pollination fees charged. And by lumping that all together, you can come up with a general what I call average colony fee. In 1986, it was about $15 a hive.

In 2010, the last full year that I ran this survey, it was $70. So that's quite an increase. Quite an increase by four and a half times. And it's gone even higher now. And much of that has been influenced by this incredible increase in the price of almonds.

Speaker 1: Well, maybe it's time to turn to almonds here and understand what's driving this increase, because one way to understand this is supply is tightened. There's fewer colonies, more acres, and we're running into a problem. Does this data set reveal other explanations of why this price increase specifically in almonds has taken place?

Speaker 2: I don't have exact figures in my head now, but it seems to me that the acreage of almonds in California is looking at something like half a million acres of bearing almonds, which makes it a huge auto culture. And you should be putting, if I was an almond grower, I would have a minimum of two hives per every acre of almonds I'm growing during the blue period. So there you're looking at a million colonies of honeybees are necessary. The state of California doesn't possess a million colonies of honeybees. They are the biggest beekeeping state, but they don't have a million hives. So what has happened is historically, and this goes back certainly even before I came to Oregon in 1974, was that out-of-state beekeepers are moving to California to pollinate almonds.

As I mentioned, it's great to get out of the winter and you get your queen markets and you pick up a pollination fee. Well, after the arrival of the mites, there was this perception that fewer colonies are available. It became more expensive on the beekeepers part to maintain a healthy hive of bees.

And they were requesting from quote unquote the almond industry, we need an increase in pollinator fee and rental fees simply because our costs have gone up and reasonable growers recognize this. And then in the mid, well, about 2005, 2006, 2007, this idea of colony collapse disorder hit the media, which still has not let go. But that really shook up agriculture at large. And especially here in the West Coast, in the almond industry, they went, holy cow, I may be in danger of having a shortage of bees for pollination. So they were very, if you're an almond grower or an apple grower, I don't care what you're growing, you usually rely on one, maybe two commercial beekeepers to handle your account. And you have long standing association with these beekeepers and you don't want to lose them.

So as an enticement of, hey, I need you here, you put your fees up. And in the case of almonds, they went up dramatically on the part of the almond industry recognizing there could be a potential shortage of bees for pollination. And on the part of beekeepers saying my costs have increased and I need to raise my pollination rental fee. So it's skyrocketed, naturally skyrocketed. I understand last year was something like $175 a colony, which is my God, that's incredible.

Speaker 1: But not at the, there's no rent taking by the beekeepers. They are, they still have high costs.

Speaker 2: Oh, absolutely not. In terms of increased profit for beekeepers. No, no, no. I would contend there's never been a better time to be a commercial beekeeper in terms of actually making it. If we go back 40 years, there were some federal economic analysis of the beekeeping industry and the least profitable enterprise a commercial beekeeper could undertake was pollination.

That has changed. That has changed fees have gone up to more accurately reflect what the bees are worth. The necessity of bees is much, much more broadly recognized not only by beekeepers and growers, but by the lay public at large. So we have seen more equitable returns, though with the presence of the mites and the associated diseases that these parasites vector in a colony. It is much more difficult now and more expensive to maintain a healthy hive of bees.

Speaker 1: All right, we're back with Mike Brigette and we're just going to shift gears here. I mean, one thing we ask all our guests here on podcast is three things. One is their favorite book, a tool that they use for studying bees or working with bees that they find invaluable and their favorite bee species and maybe starting with is there a book out there that you sort of have long loved and would like to let the listeners know about?

Speaker 2: There'd be two books, Anthony.

Speaker 1: Two books. One is for you, Mike. Okay.

Speaker 2: For those people seriously interested about the ecology of honeybees, I would suggest Tom Sealy's book, The Wisdom of the Hive. Great book. Tom is a brilliant researcher and has written numerous volumes on bees, but The Wisdom of the Hive takes you inside the honeybee colony. Tom is an ecologist who has been studying honeybees his entire career, which goes back to his undergraduate days. And when he looks at honeybees, essentially he has taken the human out of the equation. So as a bee scientist, as an entomologist, his book is wonderful.

Speaker 1: You know, the thing I love about that book as well, it's like, you know, when you read Bob Krish's book on the dance language, it's like an extended set of experiments.

Speaker 2: It's like a coherent. Yes. It's very fascinating. You don't see a book like that anymore. No. Yeah. Alright, your second book. The second book is for the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times people have come to me that are interested in bees. And beekeeping is, especially at the hobbyist level, the non-commercial level is ever increasing.

It's in its most popular phase I've ever seen it in the 47 years I've been associated with honeybees. But can you recommend a book? And one of the problems with honeybees is there are too damn many books that are written. But one I like very, very much for a beginning beekeeper is called A Year in the Bee Yard by Roger Moll. That is a great book. I love that book. Now, Roger wrote that essentially for beekeeping in the northeastern United States, but it's a calendar approach to what you should be doing with the hive of bees every month of the year. And it's the title A Year in the Bee Yard. And as I told people here in the Pacific Northwest, what you do is you just take that book and shift everything a month ahead, comparing our climate, our weather conditions here in the Pacific Northwest compared to the northeast of the US.

Speaker 1: Roger Morse is just such a great writer too. It's so readable.

Speaker 2: He was. He was. He wrote any number of books. But that was the first one he wrote. And I was his graduate student at the time and Dutton Press published it. And I remember when they sent the galley proofs, I sat in Doc's office and I would, he would check the galleys and I would read the chapters he had typed out on his old Smith Caron. It was fantastic. Fantastic.

Speaker 1: So the tool that you can, you know, if you were stranded on a bee science island, the one tool that you couldn't do without. Maybe.

Speaker 2: Yeah, there are a number of ways to look at that. But I would say for my knowledge and my enjoyment of honey bees and observation beehive has been fantastic. Right. I have maintained, I maintained observation beehives the whole time I was being paid by Oregon State University. You can learn so much from them.

You can keep them almost anywhere. And I like to look back and say there's been one entomologist who's won a Nobel Prize. And that was Dr. Carl von Frisch. And he worked with honey bees and he developed a bee language. And how do you do that using an observation beehive?

Speaker 1: Well, it connects also to the wisdom of the hive, the book, your recommendation, which is like heavy observation hive dependent research. That's great. All right. Last question. What's your favorite species of bee?

Speaker 2: Well, I know with you this is tricky. Yeah. We have to back up a little bit. In all of the Western Hemisphere, in Europe, all of Africa, there is only one species of honey bee. And we call it the apus malifera. But there are eight or nine other species of true honey bees. They're all found in East and Southeast Asia. So there are giant honey bees. There are dwarf honey bees. There is what's called the Eastern honey bee or apus serrana. And it's close relatives who are the closest relatives to our bee.

I've done a lot of work for 35 years now in Southeast Asia. And I've experienced every one of these species of bees. And my absolute favorite, no questions asked, is the dwarf honey bee apus floria.

Really? They're so beautiful. They're relatively easy to study. They're just a gentle, gentle bee.

When I was teaching the general beekeeping class here, it's been a long time since I have. But there was an author, Tom Robbins, who wrote a book, Another Roadside Attraction. And in that book, his protagonist was this... Oh, yeah, right. Amanda.

The great book. Yeah, Amanda, I believe it was. And she was pretty misty, swirly, and just kind of floating through life. But she was very very fond of butterflies. And in the book, someone asks her, what is it about entomology that intrigues you? And she, her reply was, entomology is that vast and gentle science.

And I love that quote. And when I look at, when I apply that to bees, I look at the dwarf honey bee, which is about a quarter the size of apus prolifer. They, to me, are those gentle bees. So, I love them all. I love them all. But the Asian honey bees are something to experience.

Speaker 1: Music Thanks so much for listening. Show notes with information discussed in each episode can be found at pollinationpodcast.oregonstate.edu. We'd also love to hear from you and there are several ways to connect. For one, you can visit our website to post an episode-specific comment, suggest a future guest or topic, or ask a question that could be featured in a future episode. You can also email us at [email protected]. Finally, you can tweet questions or comments or join our Facebook or Instagram communities. Just look us up at OSU Pollinator Health. If you like the show, consider letting iTunes know by leaving us a review or rating.

It makes us more visible, which helps others discover pollination. See you next week. Music

Mike Burgett is the Emeritus Professor of Entomology at OSU, where he has taught since 1974.

He has conducted a huge amount of work on apiculture research, including a survey of beekeepers and growers in the Pacific Northwest of the US, which is our main topic for today.

Today we’ll discuss pollination markets as they are today, the history of beekeepers in this region and the unique pollination scenarios in the Pacific Northwest.

You can Subscribe and Listen to PolliNation on Apple Podcasts.

And be sure to leave us a Rating and Review!

“I wanted to know how much of a beekeeper’s income is dependent on pollination rental.” – Mike Burgett

Show Notes:

  • Where bees are being used for pollination in the Pacific Northwest
  • The fruit industries that need controlled pollination
  • Why the almond industry in California has an effect on commercial beekeepers in Oregon and Washington
  • How many colonies are needed to pollinate certain crops in the Pacific Northwest
  • Why Mike started the survey of local pollination markets in the Western US
  • The trends that he has seen in the last 30 years, and how commercial beekeepers stay profitable
  • How the price of pollination fees has changed
  • What has happened to the almond industry and why prices have increased so much
  • Why it’s a profitable time to be a beekeeper
  • The work that he has done in Southeast Asia with bees

“Your renting bees not to guarantee a crop. You’re renting bees to guarantee against crop failure. Pollination is the cheapest crop insurance a grower can get.” – Mike Burgett

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