The bee-plant relationship is necessary for our food supply and for our ecosystems. Honey bees are the “workhorses” that make it possible to produce good yields of many foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, coffee, and even meat and dairy (which depend on bees to pollinate livestock feed crops like alfalfa). Many pollinators are important contributors, and honey bees have several traits that make them well-suited for the job of crop pollination. They can be managed and moved in large numbers from crop to crop by beekeepers, they are generalists who visit many types of blooms, and they are considered by growers to be the best “bang for your buck” for pollination. Pollination often provides more revenue for beekeepers than honey production.
Honey bees are adaptable, and people have long been moving bees- in fact, beekeepers brought bees to North America from Europe in 1622! Transporting bees to their pollination work often means long distances, and new management challenges. Truck drivers must keep moving to prevent the bees from overheating, or escaping and being lost; each crop that a honey bee colony pollinates has its own risk of of unintentional pesticide exposure; and meeting the seasonal nutritional needs of their honey bees while on the move are critical tasks for a commercial beekeeper to be successful and have healthy bees.
The honey bee in this image is pollinating a melon, one of many crops that rely on migratory beekeepers for pollination services. In 2017 the USDA reported average pollination prices ranging from $16.40 per colony pollinating oranges in the Southern US to $205.00 per colony for kiwi pollination.
Farmers rent bees for pollination of many foods, everything from almonds to coriander, sunflowers, stone fruits, coffee, beans, berries, citrus, oil crops like canola, and many more. Bees also pollinate to ensure seed production for farmers and gardeners: the alfalfa that meat and dairy animals eat, flowers for pollinator mixes, and vegetable gardens all start from seeds.