Once a year the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the Department of Agriculture, counts beehives, how much honey was produced from those beehives during the previous 12 months, how much honey was left from the year before, and how much beekeepers sold their honey for. At the same time they survey honey prices at the wholesale and retail levels and adjust the overall price according to how much was actually sold. Thus, the wholesale price, which is always lower, has a greater influence on the overall price than the retail price which is always higher, but sells less in total amounts. By far the most honey used in this country is used in the baking and industrial markets...think Honey Nut Cheerios, or honey roasted peanuts for instance, and this honey is captured in the industrial sector.
When you read about the precipitous drop in the number of colonies in the U.S. in the past several years, this is where all those numbers come from.
For review, counts have gone from 3.5 million in 1989, when varroa mites were introduced into the country, to 2.3 million in 2008 a 34% decrease in our pollination and honey-producing units. Interestingly honey production has not decreased correspondingly.
From 1989 until 2000, the annual average honey crop in this country was about 197 million pounds. It varied from 235 million down 195 million, but averaged out at about 197. Before 1989, the average production could be guesstimated to be about 225 235 million pounds a year, but the introduction of varroa mites and the devastation they caused took care of that.
After 2000, the almond crop in California began to heat up, and almond growers needed more and more bees to pollinate their expanding orchards, and beekeepers from further and further east began moving bees to California each spring. Some moved in the fall, before winter set in, and overwintered in barren fields and empty lots, feeding their bees high fructose corn syrup and pollen supplements until the almonds bloomed. During that time, they were sharing every conceivable pest and predator and disease with the bees from all over the U.S. This activity only expanded every year, and more and more bees came west as each year the price went up for pollination, and each year there were fewer and fewer bees to help out, so the price kept rising...it was an upward spiral for pollination dollars, and a downward spiral for honey bee health.
Honey production in the U.S. reflected that downward spiral as the honey production average went from 197 million pounds all the way down to 170 million pounds per year average an unhealthy 14% drop.
Meanwhile, colony numbers in 1989 were at a decade's high 3.55 million -- but after that began a steady and precipitous decline, bottoming out this year at 2.3 million colonies an even unhealthier 35% drop.
At the same time, honey prices went from an average in 1995 of $0.69 per pound, to this year's $1.41 per pound. That's a very healthy 104% increase -- far bigger than inflation (one dollar in 1995 is worth $1.39 today). So today's adjusted price for honey is due to other, external factors...supply and demand? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
During this same time, per capita honey consumption in the U.S. has not wavered a gram, remaining steady at 1.2 pounds of honey consumed per person, per year. Of course, there are more people now than there were in 1989 so the total amount of honey consumed has increased to a robust 450 million pounds or so a year. Thus, U.S. beekeepers produce something like a third of the honey consumed here each year. At record high prices, record low numbers of producers, and gradually increasing consumption, you would think that there would be more beekeepers entering the market, producing more honey to capitalize on this market. But alas, no.
Two reasons. Foreign imports have increased and come here at consistently lower prices than U.S. beekeepers can profitably produce honey. That has taken over a good share of the market...primarily the industrial market because much of the imported honey is not table grade quality...much (but certainly not all) is strong, dark and not the mild light colored clover-like honey that is common on grocery store shelves. That's one reason.
But the second? The second reason can be placed squarely on, well, the stress and business of almond pollination. There is no doubt that moving thousands and thousands of colonies from the Midwest and south to California each year has placed a level of stress on the bees, the equipment and the beekeepers that care for them. Add to that the additional stresses of sitting in barren fields with thousands and thousands of other colonies...some of which are healthy, some of which aren't, and some that are already dead and being robbed and destroyed by all those thousands of bees, looking for an easy lunch.
Add in some colonies that have been weakened by exposure to these new pesticides, exposure to the new Nosema disease, and colonies too hungry to properly take care of themselves and then, in the middle, throw in a new or changed pathogen and what do you have...what you have is someone sneezing in an elevator full of people. Immediately everyone is exposed to whatever is going around that day, or week, or year. Not everyone gets it because some are healthy, some are immune and some are lucky. But some do. In this case, some did and died. And some still are. Colony losses are still common due to colony collapse disorder, or suspected colony collapse disorder. But not as many this year as last, or not as many so far. The Apiary Inspectors are doing again their colony loss count and they will be done shortly. We'll know then how good, or how bad this winter was. But there were more bees available than needed this year, and that's a healthy picture for a change.
But honey production? The numbers tell the story. Varroa first, cheap imports next, and most recently colony collapse disorder have all taken their toll on the ability of U. S. beekeepers to produce honey crop each year. You can keep bees, keep bees healthy, pollinate crops, make honey and stay in business...but it's a lot easier to do three out of four now. You pick.
Maybe buy a bottle of local honey quick this year. There might not be as much pretty soon.
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