99 – Adam Allington – The Business of Bees


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. In Oregon, we're about midway through the commercial crop pollination season.

Blueberries are done, meadow foam is waning, we're starting to see the clovers come on. And I thought this would be a great opportunity to catch up with Adam Allington, who's a reporter with Bloomberg Environment. He covers environmental issues, including pesticides and chemicals for Bloomberg. And recently, he joined Tiffany Stecker in launching a podcast series for Bloomberg called The Business of Bees, where they go through and they look at all of the dimensions of how bees are plugged into the economy and some of the limits that that economy may face. Long time listeners will remember back in episode five, we had Mike Bergett talk about pollination markets here in the Pacific Northwest. So this is a really great show to dive a little deeper into the business of bees. Adam, welcome to pollination.

Happy to be here. I listened to the first episode of The Big Business of Bees and I was really pleased because Mark Johnson, one of the Oregon beekeepers was on the episode. And I have to say right at the beginning, you know, Bloomberg and bees are not two words that people necessarily put together. So can you just begin by telling us what prompted you to investigate the changing face of the business of bees?

Speaker 2: Yeah, well, I think you're probably right that this isn't your standard stock market coverage that Bloomberg is known for. However, I work on a team called Bloomberg Environment where we do cover environmental policy questions specifically from Washington, DC. And bees was one of those topics that kind of, you know, had a toe in all these different areas in environmental policy, as I mentioned, business, science and research. And so as I've been reporting about pesticides, you know, over time, I keep coming back to stories about bees. And so that's why we initially sort of pitched this idea for a, you know, an in-depth series about bees.

Speaker 1: And I guess the story, at least from the perspective of the podcast, starts in California. So you and your co-host headed out to the largest pollination event in the planet, the Almond Pollination Event. What was that like? What surprised you about, what did you expect to find and what did you find?

Speaker 2: Well, I actually grew up on a cherry farm myself from a region of the country known for cherries. So I've actually seen, you know, these large orchard blossom events before. But even that really didn't compare to the Central Valley during almond bloom, you know, just these massive tracts of orchard crops all blooming at the same time. You know, you just really, it really jumps out to put an obvious point out there that these orchards are there. And then when you walk into the orchards themselves and you just hear this buzz just kind of rising up out of the out of the earth, you know, because there's, you know, there's two full hives per acre. And, you know, that's a lot of beehives, especially if you're talking about 800,000 acres. And so just seeing that many trees and that many bees all sort of up and running together, it's really just a beautiful experience to see. And as, you know, I thought that was, you know, as your listeners probably know, Almond Pollination is really the tail that wags the pollination dogs. So that's kind of, you know, as you say, that's why we decided to start this series there. Yeah.

Speaker 1: And it is, we had Professor Alina Nino on a past episode. We just got an update from this year's almond pollination event. And it is really remarkable to just the coordination. You have a bunch of businesses all together, arranging the shipment of these bees, putting them in place. It's a huge production in terms of just logistics, people being able to get things delivered on time. It's, it's quite remarkable.

Speaker 2: Oh yeah, for sure. I mean, it's, you know, one might ask, you know, why don't, you know, when people find out, for instance, that beeh, commercial beekeepers bring bees from as far away as Michigan or Florida or Maine or, you know, you know, Texas and so forth, they, common responses sort of like, well, why don't they just grow the bees out there in California? Then they don't have to truck them in from so far. But, you know, California is a state where there are two big things, you know, there's a lot of agricultural development and a lot of human development and finding space with sufficient floral resources to raise bees in the off season. And then also to get them sort of out of the chemical agricultural window after they're done pollinating, pollinating these crops is, is a trick. So that's why, you, for instance, you see so many beekeepers coming from Montana, North Dakota, places like that, where they still do have a little bit of space to, to raise this many hives. And that was really one of the surprising things to me personally is that in this big country, we're almost running out of space to raise bees.

Speaker 1: That is pretty remarkable. And it is, it is a kind of strange way of thinking about it. You need all this landmass to support, you know, 2 million, 2 and a half million bee colonies. And they all, at least for such an early season crop that's experienced such tremendous growth over the last few decades, it almost takes, you know, all of this landmass to support the growth of these bee colonies for this pollination.

Speaker 2: Right. And it should be said, we're talking specifically about, you know, commercial honey bees, you know, apis malifera, um, compared to, say, wild and native bees that live in these environments all year. And so, you know, some of your listeners who are gardeners, for instance, may, you know, may be able to create habitat even within cities and, and, and so forth by planting more forage for bees. But if you're out in the agricultural landscape and it's all corn and soybeans, there's not a lot of place for wild bees or honey bees to sustain themselves. So that's why, as you say, you know, you really got to get out there to find, to find enough place to keep these bees. Because for instance, you know, there's a lot of, there's abundant food resources for these bees during almond bloom, during apple bloom, during cherry bloom and so forth. But then when all of those blooming events are done, they still need to eat. Right.

Speaker 1: Of course. Well, maybe tell, take us through the episodes. So in this first episode, you sort of set up these issues. These are kind of the new and emerging. This is not the beekeeping of 40 years ago where the primary source of income was honey.

This is a much different model. And it's, I have not heard the second episode, but it almost sounds like you're coming back to visiting this species. The honey bee, tell us a little bit about the next, the second episode and the arc of the episodes coming forward. Sure.

Speaker 2: Our two primary storytelling buckets for this series are the kind of business of pollination, the business of the pollination economy. And then also the science and environmental policy questions surrounding bees.

Those are the two big areas that we focus on. And within that, we've broken it down into six episodes. The first one, we just called the big business of bees to kind of set up this booming economy. The second episode is all about the honey bee itself, apis molyphora, sort of a deep dive on how apis molyphora became the bee of choice for not only for beekeepers, but just humans in general. And then the third episode is all about just bees and agriculture.

So in that episode, we do go to California, we go to Michigan. And then the fourth episode is about bees as a symbol. Are they a good symbol for these environmental issues? Do we need to save the bees, as some groups say? And do we need to save honey bees? Or are honey bees the bees we should be putting our attention on? Or should we be focusing more on wild and native bees, like your bumblebees and so forth? And the fifth episode is all about Varroa mites, bee pests. And the last episode, we dive straight into the science of pesticides and try to really get at what role pesticides are playing in these pollinator die-offs.

Speaker 1: That really covers the span of most of the major issues. And I really love the upcoming episode and sort of setting it up how we came into how we came into the system. Because I do remember, you know, when I first got into this in the 1990s, there was, it was really hard to convince some growers to actually stock with bee colonies. There was a huge period in the beginning after World War II, where there was a lot of work put into really showing the benefits of pollination to growers. But that seems like we've sort of turned that corner now and the demand for hives is there. And we're reflecting on sort of that second to last episode, we're facing challenges in being able to provide the supply.

Speaker 2: Right. Well, I mean, you can kind of connect the dots, you know, from California and as you say, this post-World War II environment and the interstate highways are going in. And all of a sudden, it's very convenient and rather easy to move hives around. And as you know, they grow basically everything in California from almonds and oranges and strawberries to, you know, all kinds of fruits and vegetables. And they grow kind of in close proximity to each other. So that's when this pollination experiment kind of gathered steam. But really, you know, almonds again drove this to the point where the expansion of almond acreage every year created so many more hives. And when they were done with almonds, those bees needed a job. And so they looked around and found other crops for them to go to and pollination in a sense became the sort of enhancer for agriculture. You found crops that traditionally didn't use commercial pollination now found out they could get a bit of a boost or, you know, a slightly better quality of fruit by using honey bees to pollinate. And so a lot of crops that didn't, yeah, as I say, didn't use commercial bees, you know, in years past are now doing it. And now that this whole thing is up and running, we're kind of locked into commercial bee pollination in ways we never really were before.

Speaker 1: That's fascinating. Having what in this sort of centrality of this one large crop, and my understanding is that for a beekeeper that goes to almonds, they can pay off their expenses for the year from one pollination. So in some ways, this kind of creates that supply that as you point out, then, you know, be calling is looking for another income source. Hey, have you thought about using honey bees and that that can open up, you know, further pollination?

Speaker 2: Yeah, I mean, it's quite lucrative. But I should also point out, you know, the barriers to entry are quite steep. You know, I kind of got I kind of asked, I've asked people this question, if it's if this is, you know, if this is such a gangbusters economy, why is everyone getting into beekeeping? Or why don't the people who have are doing this right now, why don't they double the number of hives they have, you know, honey bees are in a sense livestock, so just make more livestock. But you know, the costs embedded in keeping your, your hive numbers up now are so high. And you know, when you factor in semis, trucking the bees around, those those are really steep costs.

And so, and that so there's the cost. And there's also that just the technology and the know how that's necessary to really keep bees alive today is quite high. So you're really looking at an economy where a relatively, you know, few number of providers are charged with meeting this increased supply. So it's not as simple as just, you know, doubling the amount of hives you have, or getting into the business quickly. And so that's where we get at this kind of tension where we're kind of using all the commercial hives we have. There's not a lot of space for say another, if these die-offs continue or if they get worse, we might not have enough hives to meet the demand of these farmers.

Speaker 1: If I remember, when you were speaking to one of the beekeepers and you posed that very question in the first episode of, what if, could you increase the numbers? Is there like how high does the price have to go? And his response was pretty clear that he's up against some real limits in terms of being able to sustain those losses.

Speaker 2: Right, and as even at say $200 a hive, which is a very good price historically, there's only so many costs you can pass on to your customers. You can't say, based on the economics of where a lot of these commodity crops are at or these specialty crops, they couldn't sustain, the market couldn't sustain say $300 a hive. So beekeepers are really doing everything they can, pushing every button they can to try to keep the hives they have alive. Whether that's splitting and splitting and splitting hives again and again, to investing in new ways to help the bees overwinter safely to provide supplemental food and forage. And they're just, the amount of research in R &D that has gone into the modern beekeeping operation is quite impressive. So those are all, those are costs that are going on. That's a learning curve that's quite steep. And so it's becoming, like much of agriculture, it's becoming this very sophisticated technical operation.

Speaker 1: Well, let's take a quick break. I wanna come back and just get some other reflections on the series now looking back after it's been produced. Okay, we are back. And I, so just, I wanna just back up a little bit and tell us a little bit about like, why this focus on the business of bees? Why did you, what did you think was really lacking without having that dimension sort of brought, of the story brought forward?

Speaker 2: I think the thing that really stood out for me was just how integrated bees and pollinators have become into these modern, you know, industrial agriculture systems. The fact that these fields are now road to road basically without any floral barriers around them whatsoever. The fact that farmers mainly don't use cover crops anymore.

They use synthetic fertilizers. The way that pollination windows are now so tight and farmers basically just don't want to risk getting a bad pollination. So bees have become just another input in the same way that water, fertilizer, pesticides, labor are and, you know, it is provided increased yields. It's provided increased quality. And it's basically this insurance policy that a lot of farmers want to have now that they want those honeybees out in their fields and they're used to it now and it's just become, it's just become kind of embedded in industrial agriculture in a way that honey, or in a way that commercial pollination never has before.

Speaker 1: Oh, that's good. So I guess without this dimension, if you didn't understand like how these things are structured, how this paradigm shift sort of like has embedded itself, it would be very difficult to understand like you, if an alien came to the US and looked at all these bees being trucked around, it would be like, I don't quite understand how, what's going on here, that this there is a kind of, by having a business perspective, you can understand how this paradigm has evolved over time.

Speaker 2: Yeah, it makes sense when you connect the dots, but it's also worth pointing out that the United States is kind of an outlier here. We're really one of the few countries that goes to this extreme with their pollination services. Most countries are not trucking their bees hundreds or thousands of miles around. And so in that respect, it's worth noting that there are people who say that we need not be as wedded to commercial pollination as we are, that for instance, this one third of all bites of food we take are dependent on bees for pollination. That there are people who doubt that statistic, or I should say who say, it's not like a lot of these crops would vanish from store shelves, were we to stop using honeybees for pollination?

Speaker 1: That's it, the first thing I think is worth remarking, so in other countries, like if you were to go to Southeast Asia or the Middle East or the EU, you don't have this level of a colony mobility where they're in Michigan one day and Florida another. This is quite unique in the world.

Speaker 2: Oh yeah, yeah, it is very unique. And you mentioned Asia and China famously as in some cases used humans to pollinate apples to greater effect than bees. And so there are ways that we could potentially keep these crops in production. And there's also a significant amount of research as your listeners probably know into alternative pollinators, your blue orchard bees, your horn-faced bees, other native species that could potentially be adapted to a managed pollinator environment.

Speaker 1: Yeah, and so the second point, I want to maybe keep expanding on it, so that if we became a little bit less reliant on honeybees and there is a way in which certain crops might suffer but not everything, and there may be these alternate pollinator systems which would then become affordable or become more visible, say more about that.

Speaker 2: Yeah, I think a lot of the research being done right now is showing promise and maybe not to the degree where we feel comfortable, say, completely replacing honeybees, but for instance, horn-faced bees can be used in conjunction with honeybees to great effect. And a lot of these native species are actually better pollinators in a pound for pound basis, say 500 blue orchard bees can do the work of almost one hive. So the problem, the trick becomes deploying them in the sort of quantities you need to really be sure you'll get a sufficient pollination. So the issue right now is augmenting honeybees with native species as kind of an extra amount of insurance. And who's to say that maybe at some point, some crops could be completely reliant on these managed native bees as well?

Speaker 1: Well, and I guess that's one of the last questions I have for you is, are you seeing emerging opportunities? So when you went around the country and produced the episode, the series, did you see kind of glimpses of the future of how things could be better?

Speaker 2: Well, I think there is a lot of promising research happening right now for ways to mitigate against Varroa mites or other bee pests. I feel like that's a problem that can be solved. It is wrapped up in with the way we use bees. So obviously putting 80% of your commercial hives in one spot every year is not necessarily a good way to protect yourself against the spread of disease. But if we can get a handle on the die-off rates to get them back down, I think you could really see commercial beekeeping become a true growth market in terms of actual numbers of hives that, you know, pushing beyond 2.3 million, 2.5 million, heading on up over three. I think another opportunity is still the fact that honey, honey is still a thing, you know, people still eat honey and the numbers are going up. So the trick becomes finding a way to market your honey in a way that taps, you know, that makes sense at your scale. And so I've spoken with people who are selling honey and who are making mead and who are, you know, using those local food systems as a way to earn revenue. And those show great promise as well.

In many ways, mead is kind of like alcoholic cider was, you know, like 10 years ago or something. It's really- Oh yeah, totally, it's right on the cutting edge. It's big business now. So, you know, I think those are markets that are gonna continue to grow. And if the commercial pollination business stays where it's at and we can get a handle on some of these, these policy issues related to bee die-off, then I think we're gonna be looking at a good system. You know, honeybees are, they're amazing creatures.

They're wild, but they're also domestic. The way the hive structure works, you know, it's just fascinating. And one thing you hear a lot when you talk to bee people is that, you know, honeybees, well different than native bees are still, you know, what benefits honeybees does in large part benefit native bees as well. And the problems faced by commercial beekeepers are a problem for, you know, this is an issue. Like we want commercial beekeepers to be successful. And so, you know, if we can find ways to help the rusty patch bumblebee and honeybees, then we're on the right track.

Speaker 1: That's fantastic. I guess the last, a quick question I have for you as the person who sort of covers the pesticide beat. I know that just this week there was this announcement of sort of taking, there was some registered neonicotinoids that are gonna be brought off the market. What do you know about that story?

Speaker 2: So this announcement was actually part of a legal settlement between a coalition of environmental groups that had sued EPA back in 2017, alleging that these neonic were running a foul of the Endangered Species Act. And as part of their settlement that was reached late in 2018, EPA or the companies I should say, agreed to petition EPA to remove 12 neonic products from the market, seven of which are seed coatings and the rest are sort of commercial gardening products. And that's very significant because that actually, that's the first time these neonic have been removed from the market. And it now puts the focus on the rest of the products that are still out there. These active ingredients are all going to be up for re-registration through EPA, so over the next two, three years.

And it's gonna be a live and fierce debate. I can tell you that because farmers really want to keep these seed coating products, they rely on them quite heavily. And if they go away or if we have restrictions, say similar to what they have in the EU where you can only use a few neonics in greenhouses and so forth, it's gonna really change the dynamic in out in our fields. And so expect that to be a growing debate going forward for the neonic insecticides.

Speaker 1: Okay, well stay tuned. Well, the business of bees, you can get it on iTunes, Stitcher, any of those sources, we'll have a link to it on the show notes. And I guess episode three airs, well by the time we're gonna be releasing this, episode four will be coming out, so stay tuned.

Speaker 2: Thank you so much for talking to me, I appreciate it.

Speaker 1: 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.

Adam Allington in a reporter with Bloomberg Environment in Washington DC. He covers environmental issues including pesticides and chemicals. Prior to coming to Bloomberg he spent more than ten years working in public radio. Over the course of one year, Adam, along with environment reporters David Schultz and Tiffany Stecker traveled to all corners of the honeybee ecosystem from Washington, D.C., to the California almond fields, and orchards of the upper Midwest to examine the changing relationship between commercial pollination and US food production. Their findings are featured in a new Bloomberg podcast: The Business of Bees.

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