The Bee Shepherd

In a role often unseen in agriculture, Jeffrey Lee is helping both bees and farmers be more productive.

beeJeffrey Lee/Farm & Ranch Living

Every February, Jeffrey Lee and his honeybees leave North Carolina to take part in what has become the biggest insect migration worldwide—when billions of honeybees travel to pollinate California’s 1.3 million acres of almond orchards. As a commercial beekeeper, Jeffrey sends about 1,200 colonies (or hives) to help with the pollination effort, and with each bee colony housing an average 40,000 bees, that’s 48 million traveling to California on Jeffrey’s trucks alone.

If it weren’t for honeybees and professional beekeepers like Jeffrey (he prefers the term “bee shepherd”) California’s almond industry would go bust. In 2016, the latest year for which there is data, 1.59 million honeybee colonies traveled to the almond orchards to pollinate the trees. This is why Emma Mullen, honeybee extension associate at Cornell University, refers to it as such an enormous migratory event, albeit assisted by humans.

Honeybees, Emma says, are very efficient pollinators. Almond trees do not self-pollinate; they require help from insects, birds and other pollinators. Almond orchards need about two hives per acre to pollinate the creamy pink buds, and because the almond industry in California is so vast, and there are not enough native pollinators in the orchards, honeybees are hired from around the country to do the job. How do you travel with millions of bees? As carefully as possible.

beeJeffrey Lee/Farm & Ranch Living

To prepare his bees for the trip, Jeffrey loads the hives onto pallets, which are then stacked and strapped down to flatbed trucks. Next, fine-netted tarps are wrapped around the precious cargo. It takes about four days to transport the bees cross-country. They need water, so Jeffrey hopes for rain along the way—and if there’s no rain, the trucks may have to be hosed down.

Also, bees don’t like heat; if they get too hot, they may leave the hive. So, to keep them comfortable, the trucks stop only at night. Because Jeffrey has other bees to tend to at his apiaries back home, he trusts professional drivers to deliver the bees safely. He usually flies out to manage them when they arrive at their destination.

California represents just the beginning of the season for a migratory beekeeper. After the almond crop is pollinated, Jeffrey shepherds his bees back to North Carolina for lowbush blueberries. Some bees then go up to Maine for its blueberries in early May. Then in June, it’s back to North Carolina for cucumbers and watermelons. Other colonies may travel to Wisconsin in June to work the cranberry marshes.

All that traveling is about meeting needs: Farmers need honeybees to pollinate crops and honeybees need food. Approximately 75 percent of all food crops require or benefit from pollinators. These include beans, tomatoes, carrots, onions, cherries, apples, squash, avocados, kiwi, melons, broccoli, mangoes, cashews, peaches and nectarines.

Then there are the crops on which livestock depend, such as clover and alfalfa—which means that bees and other pollinators are responsible for helping to grow nearly a third of the world’s food supply. With large-scale monoculture agriculture, acres and acres of plants need pollination all at the same time. There aren’t enough native pollinators to do that job, and a lot of money is at stake. The American Beekeeping Federation estimates bees contribute nearly $20 billion to U.S. crop production.

Another key factor: The bees need food. They require pollen and nectar to feed their colonies. Honeybees kept by a backyard beekeeper can probably find enough food in their surrounding areas, but Jeffrey and others like him have millions of bees, so they need to be shepherded to food supplies to survive. Jeffrey estimates his apiaries house around 2,000 colonies (or 80 million bees) when they are at their most robust time of the year, usually in early summer. All these bees would starve if he didn’t find them food.

Jeffrey’s business began with a fascination for bees, which he’s had since he was a child. He tended his first hive when he was 12.

Jeffrey admires bees’ ability to explore the world—in ways humans can’t—and their intricate social structure. The hobby grew until he reached what he calls the “point of no return” in 2004. With a doctorate in chemistry, he was working in the pharmaceutical industry and offering pollination services to farmers on the side. But that year, he found himself with 300 hives. It was either move forward with the bees or downsize. Jeffrey decided to leave his job and become a full-time bee shepherd. While his love for honeybees continues, Jeffrey feels the stress of the profession.

“Bees are highly dependent on you,” he says. There’s the continual need to equalize hives, making sure one colony isn’t too weak and another too strong, which might result in a swarm—a situation in which bees flee the hive in search of a larger space. There are other variables to consider, too, such as diet supplementation and checking for threats to the colonies.

“It’s almost like high-stakes poker,” Jeffrey says, joking that his 401(k) is in bees. As environmental threats move faster than science, beekeepers are mostly left to figure out solutions on their own. He says beekeepers are the underdogs in agriculture, with a lot at stake—not just for Jeffrey, but also for our food producers. Despite these challenges, Jeffrey believes that eventually the industry will find solutions. He just hopes it happens before the stresses wear him and other beekeepers out.

For now, Jeffrey will continue to shepherd his bees to help farmers nationwide, for he’s doing what he loves to do.

Threats to Bees

The bees’ world is changing faster than they can adapt.

• FOOD DESERTS: Native habitats are vanishing for bees, which need a variety of amino acids from a diversity of plants.

• PARASITES: Varroa mites, for example, feed on bees and some are now resistant to common treatments.

• VIRUSES: There is no cure for viral infections in honeybees; the only way to help bees is to improve their immune response.

• PESTICIDES: Those containing neonicotinoids are of great concern to beekeepers, as they may damage bees’ cognitive functions, impairing their ability to find pollen and return to the hive.

• COLONY COLLAPSE DISORDER (CCD): Big in the news about a decade ago, CCD is the mysterious phenomenon of masses of bees abandoning hives. Causes aren’t fully known but are believed to be related to a combination of viral and pathogenic infections. It’s less of a threat now, compared with other difficulties facing bees.

How You Can Help

• FARMERS: Communicate with beekeepers to ensure that pesticide spraying won’t interfere with the bees. Leave gaps between crops for native plants and wildflowers. Try to diversify what you plant and help advocate for beekeepers and their needs in the industry.

• CONSUMERS: Buy U.S.-produced honey. Plant a pollinator garden. Learn more about how important pollinators are to our food supply.

For more information: pollinator.org

Plus, check out: Simple Things You Can Do at Home to Help Save the Bees

beeJeffrey Lee/Farm & Ranch Living

THE BUZZ

HISTORY

Native to Europe, Asia and Africa, honeybees (Apis mellifera) were brought to North America from Europe in the 1600s.

HOME

One reason honeybees are used as pollinators is that their most common home—the Langstroth hive—is easy to transport and re-establish in farmers’ fields. The Langstroth hive is a rectangular wooden box called a “super” that contains eight to 10 removable frames in which the bees build combs. The super rests on a bottom board, with an opening for honeybees to enter the hive. As the colony grows, more supers can be added atop the original one, producing the familiar sight of stacked hive boxes.

COLONY LIFE

Typically 20,000 to 60,000 bees live in a hive, depending on many factors, including time of year. There is one queen, which lays eggs in the comb cells.

Each bee has a specific role designed to benefit the success of the colony. A bee’s role is partially determined by its age, and whether it was born from a fertilized or unfertilized egg. If it’s fertilized,it’s a female, or worker bee. If it’s unfertilized, it’s a male drone, responsible for mating with an unfertilized queen.

Worker bees live about six weeks in summer, and move from being nurse bees to foragers. They are responsible for a multitude of tasks: building honeycomb, feeding larvae, cooling the hive and protecting it from predators, and gathering food. The health of the bee family is a priority to honeybees. If a bee is sick with a virus or other infection, it will leave the hive so as not to infect others within the colony. Sometimes it may even go to another hive to infect it.

POLLINATION

A typical bee might visit up to 3,000 growers in a day, with a 2-kilometer foraging radius around the hive. A foraging bee tells her sister bees where to find nectar and pollen by performing what is called a waggle dance.

See more from Farm & Ranch Living here.

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