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Migratory Beekeeping – How it Works

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.  For some of the hives, their migratory beekeeping adventure began as far away as Maine. So goes the lives of the beekeepers who follow the honey flow renting out hives to across the country.

What is Migratory Beekeeping?

Commercial hives on pallets in field used for migratory beekeeping image.

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

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Most large scale migratory beekeepers keep their hives on wooden pallets. Four hives fit together on each pallet. Then a forklift or similar equipment is used to load the hives on flatbed trucks. A large net of thrown over the hives and off they go.

Some beekeepers stay within a region, going from one state to another one 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.

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

It is often not feasible for them to manage colonies of their own year round. They only need beehives in the field for a few weeks of the year.

How it Differs from Regular Beekeeping

The aspects of migratory beekeeping share some common practices with the backyard beekeeper with only a couple of hives.  Honey bee colonies require maintenance. They must be inspected for problems with pests or disease. Any problems with the queens or lack of food must be addressed.

Most migratory beekeepers have little or no interest in honey – unlike the hobbyist or an Urban beekeeper.  Instead, their focus is maintaining colonies with a good population of workers for pollination.

Honey bees are a good match for crop pollination for several reasons:

  • they live in large family groups with thousands of individuals
  • their hives can be packed on trucks and shipped almost anywhere

Yet, those who travel with their hives face some different challenges too. Many modern farmers attempt to reduce the number of weeds growing in their fields or orchards.  Why let weeds grow and use the water and fertilizer intended for crops?

However, some weeds feed bees and provide variety in their diet.  When bees eat only one food source over a period of time, their health may suffer.

For the migratory beekeeper, this means paying special attention to the health of the colonies.  Extra feeding may be necessary to ensure that the bees get different types of protein instead of only one source of nectar and pollen.

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Commercial hives in a blueberry field for pollination image.

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 it is 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.

In large agricultural operations, bees from many different farms may be in place in the same fields.  This allows parasites and diseases to spread among the colonies.

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.

Challenges facing the industry

Hobby beekeeping is not as easy as it way 30 years ago.  This is something I constantly hear from older beekeepers.  I think the same thing can be said about migratory beekeeping.

The influx of pests such as varroa mites and 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.

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.

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

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.

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