What is Migratory Beekeeping?

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For the beekeepers involved, migratory beekeeping moving colonies of bees across the country is a way of live. For instance, each Spring thousands of honey bees arrive in the orchards of California for almond pollination. They will be here for a short time before moving to another location. These beekeepers follow the need for pollination by renting out hives to farmers across the country.

Commercial hives on pallets in field used for migratory beekeeping.

Of course, this is only one way to have a business or bee farm. The money can be good but the work is hard.

Migratory Beekeeping – Moving Bees Across America

Migratory beekeeping is a specialized form of keeping honey bees that involves moving hives to crops in need of bee pollination.  Once the bloom periods has passed, the hives go on to the next crop in bloom.

Most large scale migratory beekeepers keep their hives on wooden pallets. The Langstroth type of beehive fits 4 together on each pallet.

Then a forklift or similar equipment is used to load these “four-ways” on flatbed trucks. There is no time available to move each hive one at a time.

Once the pallets are on the truck – a large net is thrown over the hives and off they go. Of course, this happens at night while the bees are inside.

Some beekeepers stay within a region, going from one state to another nearby to place hives in fields and orchards. 

For others, their beehives travel across the country from the Northeast or Southeast to California following the need for pollinators.

Commercial hives in a blueberry field for pollination.

Why Farmers Rent Bees

Farmers pay large amounts of money to “rent” beehives during the season.  Perhaps, they only need bees in place for a couple of weeks or a month

Farmers might enjoy the benefits of beekeeping through pollination. But, it is often not feasible for them to manage colonies of their own year round. They only need bees in the field for a few weeks of the year.

During that time honey bees gather nectar and pollen and help fertilize flowers. This results in larger crop yields.

But, the farmer may not need bees again for months so they do not desire having the responsibility of managing hives year-round.

Crops That Benefit from Migratory Beekeeping

Almonds rely almost entirely on pollination by honey bees.  With over 800,000 acres of almond trees (per the USDA), they need a lot of flying bees. 

And because the trees bloom at the same time, California becomes a beetopia for a short while in February each year.

But, almonds are not the only plants that benefit from honey bee pollination. Beekeepers also rent-out hives for the following crops.

  • Alfalfa
  • Apples
  • Avocados
  • Blueberries
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cherries
  • Clovers
  • Cranberries
  • Cucumbers
  • Plums
  • Pumpkins
  • Sunflowers
  • Watermelons
  • And more…

How Migratory Beekeeping Works

The migratory beekeeping network is made up of many commercial beekeepers.  They have the trucks, nets, forklift and other equipment needed to move hundreds of colonies at one time.

A farmer (perhaps an almond grower) sees a need for pollination services.  He/she reaches out to the network to find a beekeeper willing to bring in hives. 

A contract is issued stating the price to be paid, the time frame when colonies should be in place and any other important details.

It is the responsibility of the beekeeper to have healthy colonies in place for the time frame agreed upon in the contract.  Once the job is complete, the hives are loaded again and off to their next job.

Large single crop field challenges for migratory beekeeping image.

Is Migratory Beekeeping Bad for Bees?

In the United States modern agriculture depends on honey bees, they represent billions of dollars to the industry. Even crops that do not depend totally on insect pollination often produce a larger yield when bees are present.

Monoculture is the practice of growing one type of plant in large fields. This has become a common way of producing fruits and vegetables.

While the portability of beehives makes them great for crop pollination, it is not without some stressful effects on the honey bees.  It is not “natural” for bees to be confined to the hive for days at a time and exposed to the stress of travel.

Also, the constant change in floral types, temperatures, humidity, length of daylight and other environmental conditions – get the colony out of its natural annual rhythm.

While in the field of the target crop, worker bees face exposure to harsh pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals.  Though of course a smart farmer strives to avoid contaminating the important hives.

Farmers often do not want weeds in the field. However, some weeds help feed bees and provide variety in their diet.  When bees eat only one food source over a period of time, their health may suffer.

In large agricultural operations, bees from many different farms may be in place in the same fields.  This allows a prevalence of pests of honey bees to spread among the hives.

Bee health is a major challenge for migratory colonies as they also share common bee diseases.

Combine these issues with the obvious challenge of maintaining a diverse honey bee diet and you can see that migratory beekeeping is not always easy.

Commercial beehives of migratory beekeeper near sunflower field with other vegetation nearby image.

Challenges Facing the Industry

Backyard beekeeping with stationary colonies is not as easy as it was 30 years ago.  This is something I constantly hear from older beekeepers.  The same thing can be said about migratory beekeeping.

The influx of bee parasites such as varroa mites and pests like Small Hive Beetles weakens colonies over all.  Mites also aid in the spread of viruses and disease.  Just like humans, stressed bees are more likely to get sick.

The life of bees on the move involve interactions with many different hives from other regions. Migratory practices enhance the opportunity for the spread of pathogens.

These problems and others have led to a shortage of bees in many areas.  Colony collapse disorder (CCD) first became apparent due to large colony losses for migratory beekeepers.  Even today, some farms are left struggling to find enough colonies for their crops.

What Can We Do to Help the Industry?

Due to the value of honey bees to modern agriculture, it is vital that something be done to help beekeepers. 

One technique is to provide better nutrition for beehives on the move.  This can help ensure they are receiving all the nutrition needed to be good pollinators.

Another idea is the allow colonies longer recovery periods between pollination jobs.  This allows for a more natural life experience and could reduce some of the stress of moving.

In some areas, farmers or orchard owners are learning how to use bee friendly plants in between rows or along field perimeters.  This move away from monoculture provides additional pollen and nutrition to the hives without interfering with the target crop.

Finally

Some aspects of migratory beekeeping share common practices with the backyard hobby beekeepers or those active in urban beekeeping. All colonies require some maintenance to keep them healthy and productive. The needs of the bees are the same.

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