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Farming for Bees, It’s the Bees Knees!

Save the bees and farmers in one swoop.

The news is filled with disasters. Recently Colony Collapse Disorder was a news worthy disaster. It was a large enough issue that even Doctor Who brought up the “mysterious disappearance of the bees”. It appears that this disaster evolved from a deep-rooted problem with many different sources. Beekeepers and farmers have been at odds for years over pesticides. With the recent disappearances of bees, the tension has  been growing. A slightly less popularized issue is that farming is not what it used to be. The same farm that raised seven kids and allowed the baby boomers to retire comfortably is working its kids to the bone and not providing enough income to support the next generations. These two issues feel like very opposite ends of the spectrum. Farmers are calling for stronger pesticides to protect what little they are making, while beekeepers are pleading for less harsh chemicals. More land is being put into production and taking away habitats for wild animals and destroying nectar sources of bees. Something needs to change for the sake of all involved.

These two issues are not nearly as far apart as they seem. In fact, they might even benefit from being treated as one issue. The solution is farming for bees. Farming for bees is the idea of making farming decisions based on what is best for the bees. After closer inspection of the issues, it is evident that the two problems are very clearly linked. Farming for bees has many benefits—for farmers, the environment, and for domesticated bees.

The issues that bees face stem from many different sources. How we manage bees has stagnated over the past few years. Although there are many different approaches to beekeeping, none of these approaches is currently immune to Colony Collapse Disorder. Colony Collapse Disorder accounts for over 30 percent of commercial hive losses. (EPA) Even after thorough research, the cause of this catastrophe is still a mystery. One of the main theories is that there are many contributing factors—including the same immune-system-crashing factors any living being can face—poison, illness, and poor nutrition. Bees are subjected to these regularly and are expected to endure them in the form of pesticides, diseases, parasites, and monocrops. Domesticated bees as a species are growing weak. We have bred them for honey production and docility, ignoring a decline of disease resilience and famine hardiness. This has resulted in an increased reliance on bee medications that make that once-valuable honey inedible and worthless. This takes a toll on both the beekeepers’ profits and on the bees themselves. To medicate your bees costs money. Certain medications are forbidden in honey that is sold for human consumption. With highly contagious problems such as American foul brood, European foul brood, chalk brood, Colony Collapse Disorder, varroa mites, tracheal mites, wax beetles, and so many more, there seems to be no end to the reasons to slather hives in chemicals that ruin honey profits. (Sammataro, Diana)

One of the biggest factors, by far, causing the decline in the health of commercial bees is the almond industry. This is a multi-faceted factor. Almond orchards and bees go hand in hand. The part of an almond tree that we harvest and then eat is, in fact, the seed. loss of profit as well as slow or inconsistent nectar flows drive many beekeepers, who have seen loss of profits at home. They find that their hive services are worth a record of $150 to $225 per hive (Henry A. Barrios). Around 82 percent of the nations’ commercial bee hives end up in these almond orchards every year. (Kent Shook Lara Shook) Unfortunately, this artificial migration is detrimental to the bees’ health. The trees only bloom for a short part of the year, unable to sustain bees the rest of the year. Even when they are blooming they are not necessarily hospitable homes for bees. During the bloom almond crops are particularly susceptible to pests and disease. Frequently, the same almond orchards that pay through the nose to lure bee keepers there use pesticides that kill the hives. Almond orchards are a monocrop. This lack of variety takes its toll on the bees’ immune system by providing little to no variance in nutrition. While these hives are at their weakest they are exposed to every strain of every disease from across the nation. After the almonds are done blooming hives return to their origins, bringing the diseases. The travel, itself, takes a toll losing hives to: being crushed, having their queen crushed, overheating, being ripped apart, crashing, dehydrating, and many other factors that can kill a hive in transit.

Farming in general has fallen into the trap of thinking that divide and conquer is the best approach to farming. Monocropping and strip farming have been the “most effective” strategies for the past century. Strip farming and crop rotations only evolved to combat the dustbowl from the 1930s. These ideas rely heavily on the concept of monocrops, which is the practice of planting only one crop in an area. Even though we now break it up into smaller fields to prevent dustbowl 2.0 we are still mainly practicing monocrop farming. Monocrops are taxing on the land. Between tilling, fertilizing, planting, and harvesting, farmers drag equipment across their fields at least four times. This practice costs an average of $3 to $4 an acre, before adding the cost of any chemicals used. (Kent Shook interview) With wheat farmers spending more than $30 an acre on fertilizer alone (USDA ERS) these costs add up fast.

With crop specialization, farmers are putting all their eggs in one basket. If a farm relies on one crop and one problem arises, it has the potential to decimate the entire crop, destroying the farm’s main source of income and crippling the farmer financially. One type of bug being particularly abundant one year could spell disaster—at least decreasing the income and increasing the amount of chemical the farmer must buy to kill the pest. Because the natural give and take of the land is disrupted, farmers also have to struggle to maintain topsoil levels and are forced to fertilize. Every time a farmer fires up an engine, carbon dioxide emission are added too. Tilling, fertilizing, spraying for pests, and even planting the crop in the first place adds more chemicals to the air and local environments. Although specialization is often thought of as the most efficient way to farm it requires a farmer to rely on only one crop as their main source of income.

Small farms are not making enough to sustain a family any more. Most small farm owners do not make minimum wage off their farms. According to farm household income forecasts from the USDA, most small farms have to go off-farm for income just to keep their farms afloat. Even mid-sized farms are struggling with their projected on-farm income estimated to be over $1,000 negative in 2018 (Farm Household Income Forecast). This continued downward spiral in the profitability of mid to small sized farms is just further evidence that something needs to change. The change that needs to happen will benefit both famers and bees. Farming for bees is farming with the health of the bees being the underlying focus of every decision. Farming for bees requires diversification of crops. This allows bees to have nectar sources for as long as possible. Varied nectar provides more varied and better nutrition. Farming for bees saves money on pesticides. Farming for bees means not using pesticides. Those three things fix the three most probable causes of Colony Collapse Disorder. According to the book Farming For Bees Guidelines, the definition of farming for bees is just that—adding hives, adding plants that flower at varied times, and minimizing pesticides. (Vaughan, Mace)

Kent Shook animatedly states that he has witnessed a great excitement in the beekeeping community over the idea of farming for bees. However, “We need to get the ag community excited.” He has seen the push back against change. Family farms are the small- to mid-sized farms that are struggling to thrive. These same families insist on continuing to run the farms the way it’s always been run. Shook has been dedicating his spare time to research farming for bees for years. To try to convince the sunflower community of Laramie county that bees actually make an impact on their income, he has moved his hives around a local farm so that the increased production could be observed in relevance to hive placement.

Kent Shook was very ready to do a financial run down of how farming for bees could look in Laramie County. His run down starts with the current break down of what it takes to make money farming dry land wheat. He estimates 40 bushels per acre by his research. At a little over $4 a bushel, $170 gross income per acre can be made on wheat during a good year. $100 is more normal. (USDA ERS) That is before expenses. Butler and Sons, a family farm that Kent works closely with estimated that they go over their ground with equipment around six times a year. At $3 to $4 dollars an acre each time, that costs almost a fourth of the profits. Then there is fertilizer and pesticides as well as the cost of the actual seed. In the end you spend around 90 percent of the gross income. This leaves farmers making only $10 to $20 an acre. This all adds up to mean that it takes 40 acres per week —1500 acres a year, roughly three square miles—to make minimum wage. Now compare that to farming for bees, with a very conservative hive on each five acres of land. Since wheat is not used much by the bees, this is a good estimate of what a wheat farm can support. The bees would mainly collect nectar from the unplanted land. Each hive could produce between 60-100 pounds of honey. You can easily sell local honey for $7 a pound, which means each hive can gross an average of around $560 a year. Roughly rounded, one acre of land can make around $100 dollars an acre more farming for bees in addition to crop profits. Even if your bee expenses are high and you only net 10-20 percent of that, you are doubling your profits. (Kent Shook interview)

The practice of farming for bees doesn’t just help bees and farmers. It helps the environment in general. “Natural side effects of creating a highly diverse, bee-friendly farm include ecological benefits as well. Erosion, water pollution, and air pollution will all decrease. Pollution by run-off of chemical additions will be low. With minimal, or no-till farming practices, the farm will have a net gain of top soil, rather than the standard loss (due to wind and water erosion) that is seen in many farms. Habitat will be healthy, with more niche-space to be filled by more diverse wildlife. Wildlife will be naturally attracted to the area.”(Kent Shook and Lara Shook) With less chemicals being sprayed, and less tillage, not only do farmers save money, they also save the environment by decreasing pollution, both in the form of pesticides as well as reducing CO2 emissions from running equipment. Shook states that “If bees thrive everyone thrives.” He mentions that leaving more areas in bee friendly plants often means leaving areas in which wildlife thrive. Thriving wildlife can encourage tourism and hunting which are both potential income sources for communities as a whole—not just farmers or beekeepers. (Kent Shook interview).

This change is rather drastic. Famers need to look at buying bees as an investment. The initial cost might sting. However, if there is a good nectar flow, farmers can make $200 to $300 per hive. (Kent Shook interview) The honey production alone could potentially pay for itself in a less than five years—even as few as two years is possible. Diversifying crops means less of the main cash crop. However, that does not mean that the other crops are not harvestable. Farmers can cut and bale clover, making money on that too. Rocky mountain bee plant seeds cost plenty; they are also worth just as much when harvested. Sunflower seeds can be sold to make oil or bird feed. Some weather is better for certain crops. By having lots of crops, farms are more likely to have a successful crop, thus minimizing the “boom and bust” cycle. 

Beth Conrey is the owner of Bee Squared Apiaries—a 100-hive beekeeping operation in Berthoud, Colorado. She has been keeping bees for 20 years. In the past she was president of both the Western Apicultural Society and the Colorado State Beekeepers’ Association. She is treasurer of the Pollinator Stewardship Council. She is a founding member of People and Pollinators Action Network. In her TEDTalk “Bee-have so We Can Bee-have” she brings up that some pesticides are closer to bee friendly. Insecticides that are not broad spectrum and have a short-term toxicity are safer for bees. Farming for Bees has several steps to help minimize pesticide damage to bees. The first thing is to take extreme care with pest prevention. Preventing pests includes nontoxic options. It recommends hormones that disrupt the pests mating cycles, managing pest-eating insects such as praying mantises, as well as being mindful when choosing crop rotations. (Vaughan, Mace)  Beth Conrey also points out that there are lots of non-beneficial places that flowering  plants could be incorporated. Road ditches, field edges, steep hill-sides. These currently wasted spaces could be planted with flowering plants to help support a year-round bee population. (Conrey, Beth. “BEE-Have so We Can BEE-Have) Places like almond orchards could take some of their land out of almonds in favor of some bee friendly crops. Instead of renting bees for the bloom, they could buy bees to have year-round. The bees would be an investment to help diversify their income sources, saving them money on renting bees; making them money for selling the honey; eliminating wasted land. Throwing flowering crops into the rotation is not only good for the bees. Crops such as clover and alfalfa are often inoculated with a nitrogen fixing bacteria that grows with the pant. Both flowering plants can be harvested after their main blooms, making them maximumly helpful for bees. They also can be left to break down naturally over time, further fertilizing the land, building the topsoil and nearly eliminating the need to fertilize the next crop in the rotation. If the bees’ honey production is not the only source of income, beekeepers can afford to let the bees’ genetics clean themselves up to be more resilient. If weak hives die instead of medicating them the entire apiary is strengthened. If the hives that are the most resilient replace losses instead of the hives with the most honey production, bees get stronger. If bees do not follow the nectar flow around the country, they are only exposed to one area’s diseases and parasites, which will allow them to adapt and over come naturally, while saving money on medication and transportation. 

Bees and farmers are not the only ones who benefit from farming for bees. Other wildlife and the soil benefit as well. Neal Butler, a farmer and beekeeper is quoted in the article "To Bee Or Not To Bee" saying: “[W]hen you are not reliant on solely one mode of agriculture to provide your income, you can start making decisions that are good for the land as well as your bottom line. It allows you to look further into the future. Instead of saying, ‘my budget goes out 1.5 years,’ my budget can go out 5 or 6 years. This gives me a little wiggle room for bad weather, disease, and pests.” (Kent Shook and Lara Shook) Farming for bees allows a small family farm to survive a one-crop disaster or another small disaster, and still make a profit from the farm. It increases the ability of mid-sized farms to be their own insurance. This could should lessen the farm’s dependency on off-farm income. 

However, farming for bees would take a drastic shift in both beekeeping and farming techniques. Not only that but purchasing bees and the equipment to make a profit from them is an investment—an expensive investment. It is a difficult argument. If no one is willing to try the change, then no one will see any change. Predictions stipulate that bee populations and farming incomes will continue to decrease. This will raise prices of foods such as almonds, apples, oranges, watermelon, and most other fruits. Current practices are proving to be unsustainable. Big problems call for large solutions. Farming for bees could be a solution. To farm for bees, management decisions need to be based on these three factors, prioritized: First, think whether this decision is good for the bees; Second, consider what this does for the land; and third, decide whether this will either bring in more income or save money. Crops that are good for bees have long or varied nectar flows. More than one type of bloom should always be available. Earlier blooming plants such as dandelions are a beekeeper’s friends. Not spraying for pests may take a bite out of the crops production and the farmers initial profit; however, it saves money on chemicals, and healthy bees make more honey. More honey makes more money. Sometimes farming for bees will be investing. It will be taking a loss on this one crop this one year, but it will also be not losing the entire profit because of one hail storm. It is an investment in the future of farming, bees, and the environment. It is an investment in the future of the world.


Works Cited

“Beth Conrey: You Can Help Honeybees.” Longmont Times-Call, 1 May 2013, www.timescall.com/ci_23142002/beth-conrey-you-can-help-honeybees

“Colony Collapse Disorder.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 27 Dec. 2017, www.epa.gov/pollinator-protection/colony-collapse-disorder

 “Commodity Costs and Returns.” Commodity Costs and Returns, USDA ERS, www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/commodity-costs-and-returns/commodity-costs-and-returns/#Recent%20Costs%20and%20Returns:%20Wheat

“Farm Household Income Forecast.” Www.ers.usda.gov, United States Department of Agriculture, United States Department of Agriculture. https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-economy/farm-household-well-being/farm-household-income-forecast/

“Start up Kits.” Mann Lake Ltd., www.mannlakeltd.com/catalogsearch/result/?&q=extractor&sort=final_price%2Basc&rows=36&start=0

Conrey, Beth. “BEE-Have so We Can BEE-Have .” YouTube, TEDxCSU, 7 Nov. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=06qhKdX0nKo

Henry a. Barrios. “almond growers pay record prices amid bee shortage | bee & beekeeping news” Almond growers pay record prices amid bee shortage, dadant and sons, 14 dec. 2016, www.dadant.com/almond-growers-pay-record-prices-amid-bee-shortage/

Sammataro, Diana, et al. The Beekeeper's Handbook. Comstock Pub. Associates, Division of Cornell University Press, 2011

Shook, Kent, Lara Shook and Neal Butler. “To Bee or Not to Bee.” Pheasants Forever Journal of Upland Conservation, 2014.

Shook, Marissa, and Kent Shook. “a Beekeepers Stance.” 18 Mar. 2018.

Vaughan, Mace. Farming for Bees: Guidelines for Providing Native Bee Habitat on Farms. Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, 2015.

Marissa shook
Marissa shook

As a college student at lssu in u.p. MI. from wyoming. I am also a huge fan of poetry, music dance, art, and dogs. My father is a brewer and my mother is a business consultant. Me? I'm not good with people. 

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