When the media or researchers talk about how many colonies, how many bees, how many beekeepers have been affected by colony collapse disorder this year, or last year, or the year before, they talk in terms of percent loss... 24% of the bees that died last year perished due to colony collapse disorder, or some such figure. And those who write about this malady toss around those percentages with ease and without pain. It's easy to do because most of us don't really know what those numbers mean.
The photo here shows what they mean. The beekeeper who owns the pallets pictured here used to own about 18,000 colonies... up until this spring anyway. The pallets in the photo are telling, and, said the owner, they only represent half of what died. Each of those pallets holds four colonies. A colony is a single stack of white boxes that most people commonly associate as being a beehive. Each stack consists of at least two wooden boxes that the bees live in. Each box, when purchased, costs about $12 - $15 each, or maybe a bit less if the beekeeper makes them himself. There's internal furnishings too, called frames, that the bees actually live on and in, that baby bees are raised in and honey and pollen are stored in. Each of those frames costs about $1.25, more or less, and has to be replaced every 2 or 3 years because of the agricultural toxins that build up inside. There are 10 frames in a box, so figure 20 in a colony... more if there are more boxes on the hive. The pallet itself cost about $25 or so, more or less, depending on how creative the beekeeper is, because every beekeeper makes their own pallets or has them custom made to accommodate their own colonies, forklifts, warehouses and honey processing operation. Beekeeping is kind of standardized, but there's a lot of room for personalization. These boxes, if cared for properly, will last about 10 years... as few as 5 or 6 in humid climates, more in the cold dry areas of the country. Frames, about 3 or 4 years... or it should be that long anyway, and not longer.
Each of the bee hives that sits on each of those pallets requires a significant amount of management every year. The labor needed to accomplish every thing that needs doing is one of, and in many cases the greatest cost for a beekeeping operation... not unlike any other agricultural pursuit. That's because each of these hives has to be inspected several times... and there's no machine that can do that... it's one at a time by an individual beekeeper.
Each hive has a queen, and over the course of an entire season 2 or 3 queens, to make sure the colony's population stays strong and healthy. Some are bought while still in their cocoons, or queen cells as we call them, and are placed in a colony to mature, then mate and then head the colony. Some queens are bought when already mature and mated and are ready to head a colony. As you would expect, the younger queens cost less, about $5 each, but there is inherent risk with these queens and some are always lost during the maturation process and must be replaced, adding to the overall cost. Mature queens, too, are sometimes lost, but on a far less frequent basis, but their cost ranges from $10 - $15 each... a considerable investment.
A beekeeper absolutely must maintain an abundant and healthy diet for the whole course of the year... especially if colonies are to go to California to pollinate almonds. If the weather holds, the crops grow and everything goes according to plan during the summer, the location the beekeeper places the hives meets the needs of the colony... mostly. If not, the colonies have to be moved to where conditions are more favorable, or supplemental feeding is required. And if bees are to go to almonds, supplemental feeding is absolutely required because in February a colony is only about half as large as almond growers want them to be to do an adequate job of pollination.
All told, it costs a beekeeper right about $200 to maintain and manage a colony so it is at the appropriate strength to pollinate almonds.
So, each of those pallets represents about $800 worth of preparation time and cost during the previous year to get them into shape to pollinate the almond crop. Plus, when the bees in a colony perish the boxes and frames and pallets sit idle for some time... and an empty box doesn't pollinate, make honey, or make more bees, so there is an opportunity cost there that the beekeeper loses. Plus, those now-empty pallets have to go somewhere. The beekeeper that owns all these pallets has already sent home the empty boxes the now-dead bees were in. He can get more boxes on a truck without the pallets than with them, so they are shipped separately. An additional cost.
So if you want to see what a half million dollars looks like, look again at that stack of pallets. That's what it cost that beekeeper to be able to make that pile. That's the cost of Colony Collapse Disorder.
And now, there will be the cost of cleaning up the boxes and getting new bees and queens and getting them fed, plus a new colony generally is less productive than a colony that is strong and healthy coming out of almonds. That colony can pollinate more crops, make honey during the summer and make more bees in the fall to make more colonies to pollinate more crops and make more honey.... When a colony dies, it's much like a pregnant cow dying. The farmer loses the cow and any milk she would have made, the calf and its milk and on and on. Too often in the past few years, the cost of replacement has been greater than the beekeeper can afford... and another business crumbles.
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