Bee Health Issues
There are between 25,000 and 35,000 commercial beekeepers even though the total number of persons who maintain at least one bee hive totals between 115,000 and 125,000. Many commercial beekeepers tend to their bees in northern climates during the South’s hottest time of year. Epstein speculated that the largest beekeeping operation in the U.S. is one in the Dakotas with 90,000 colonies.
Of those two and one-half million hives, Florida currently claims 360,000 of them as being based in the state. “We actually in the last four years have gone from 900 beekeepers at 240,000 hives to 3,000 keepers and 360,000 bees,” said Westervelt. “So, CCD (colony collapse disorder) has done something. It has brought us into the limelight. We have niche pollinators included in that number (one or two hive owners), but they pollinate backyard gardens, which is very important, too.
The top four crops needing commercial pollination in order of acreage are almonds, apples, melons and alfalfa. “There are about 750,000 acres of almonds in California. That is by far the driver for pollination services in this country,” Epstein said. “We need 1.5 million colonies just to serve that industry.”
Bees Shore to Shore
Westervelt noted the need for pollinators in Florida is outweighed by the California almond growers and other nut, fruit and vegetable crop growers, but Florida definitely needs a large number of bees, too.
Florida serves as a major launch pad for commercial beekeepers to transfer their bees from the southeast to California each year. A big percentage of commercial beekeepers take their bees north during the hottest time of the year then move them to Florida to be ready for the first pollen flows starting around the first week of December, Westervelt explained.
“Most of the beekeepers who come into Florida, Louisiana and Texas are here to build their bees up to go to almond pollination,” he said. “Florida sends out about 135,000 hives of bees in about a month and a half’s time on semis (trucks) to do pollination. Those bees, most of them, will come back by March 12 and go into oranges.”
A truck of 480 hives per semi-truck hauls the bees across the country in three and a half to four days. That long haul is stressful for the bees, and the bees “need watered down” because honey bees require a lot of water, Westervelt explained.
600 Years of Research
“Honey bees have been studied more in the last six years than they have been studied in the previous 500 to 600 years,” Westervelt said. This studying has resulted in the identification of viruses, bacteria and other insects that were never previously recognized as harming bees.