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The most valuable thing we get from honey bees is pollinated crops.

Economic Value of Pollination

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.

The most valuable thing we get from honey bees is pollinated crops. In 2010, honey bees contributed $19.2 Billion to the US Economy through pollination services and other pollinators contributed $12.7 Billion. In contrast, the value of honey produced in the US in 2010 was estimated at about $232 Million.

Pollination Migration

The terms “Pollination Migration” and “Migratory Beekeeper” refer to the movement of honey bee colonies around the country to pollinate different crops throughout the year. If there are not enough bees near a crop that needs pollination, bees are rented during bloom. As pollination demands have increased, migration patterns have changed and more beekeepers are moving bees farther each year. In February, the largest pollination migration in the world takes place as an estimated 80-90% of the country’s honey bees are moved to California’s almond orchards to pollinate ~80% of the world’s supply of almonds.

Transporting Honey Bees

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.

Transporting Honey Bees for Pollination 

Transporting Honey Bees

Transporting Bees for Almond Pollination

This short documentary takes viewers on a journey from an indoor storage facility for honey bees in Idaho where they are spending the winter, to almond orchards in the Central Valley for pollination.
Indoor Storage Facilities are becoming more popular, especially among beekeepers who pollinate almonds.  Storing bees indoors for the winter can offer a number of benefits including facilitating “brood breaks” (a method to help control Varroa mites), better overwintering success, lower feeding costs, and reduced pathogen transmission.

What Crops Do Bees Pollinate?

What Crops Do Bees Pollinate

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.

Are there enough bees for pollination?

Honey bee pollination demand is growing faster than honey bee colony numbers are increasing. Using almonds as an example, bearing acres of almonds (trees old enough to produce fruit) are stocked with 2 honey bee colonies per acre of trees. While almond acreage growth appears to be slowing due to water concerns, if the trends of the last five years continued (a ~20% increase in acreage and a ~1% increase in honey bee colonies), pollination demand in almonds could exceed the supply of honey bees in the next five years.