Spring is on the way and that means it's time for . . . pollination!
No, this isn't a story about the birds and the bees - just the bees; specifically, Apis mellifera, the common honey bee, without whose efforts Utah orchards would have a lot of nice green leaves but not much fruit.Same goes for most of the other produce that fills your neighborhood supermarket, whether it's an apple from Washington, a can of almonds from California or a fresh batch of guacamole from Mexican avocados: no bees, no goodies.
For that matter, no milk or beef, either. Honey bee-pollinated crops such as alfalfa hay and various clovers are the mainstay of livestock. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that a third of all food eaten in the country is tied to pollination.
We're not talking nickels and dimes. A 1989 study by Cornell University indicates the direct value of honey bee pollination to U.S. agriculture is $9.7 billion a year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture goes even further, putting the annual value of pollination at a whopping $20 billion.
"Honey bee pollination affects about every third mouthful of food or drink you consume," says the USDA's Dr. James Tew.
Utah, not being a major agricultural state, only has a small piece of that action. According to William R. Jones, owner of Jones Bee Co., Murray, and secretary of the Utah Beekeeping Association, Utah has about 500,000 acres of alfalfa pasture and 1,400 acres of orchards, a tiny fraction of the state's total 54.3 million acres and a relatively small chunk of land requiring annual pollination - including all the state's backyard gardens.
Consequently, of the nation's 250,000 beekeepers (most of them hobbyists, not professionals), only about 1,000 of them are in Utah and only a dozen or so could be classified as commercial operations, the largest being Salt Lake-based Miller Honey Co., a household name among Utah consumers.
Because of the limited agricultural acreage in Utah, Jones said, there isn't enough demand for pollination to attract out-of-state beekeepers who rent their bee colonies to farmers specifically for pollination of their fields and orchards. (Ninety-five percent of all honey bees rented for crop pollination are used for apples, cherries, melons, almonds, alfalfa seed, plums, avocados, blueberries, cucumbers, pears, sunflowers, cranberries, vegetable seeds and kiwi fruit.)
In Utah, pollination fees are only a sideline to the beekeeping business - the state's cherry crop being the only crop cited in the Cornell study as normally requiring rental of bee colonies for pollination. Jones said there is a limited amount of rental business for Utah beekeepers but not enough to make a living. For one thing, orchards are in bloom only a short time.
Nationally, from a monetary standpoint, honey production is a secondary issue in the beekeeping industry, compared with pollination. Honey bees across the United States produce about 250 million pounds of honey a year, a crop valued at $200 million. Honey bees also produce 4 million pounds of beeswax annually, as well as several lesser-known substances such as bee pollen, bee venom and royal jelly.
In Utah, honey production in 1989 was just under 2 million pounds from some 43,000 colonies. As with any commodity, the price fluctuates. In 1989, according to USDA statistics on Utah, the price per pound averaged 53 cents, down considerably from 1988's 61 cents. The 1989 figures would put the total annual Utah honey crop at just over $1 million, the latest year for which figures were available.
Jones had no numbers for 1990, but said it was a "disastrous" year, mainly due to two killing frosts early in the season that "eliminated much of the nectar at a critical time."
Jones maintains 700 hives or colonies in Washington County and a few in Bluffdale, Salt Lake County. Jones is a "handler" as well as a producer, meaning he normally will buy honey from other beekeepers. "In 1989 we bought 100 barrels from other producers," he said. "In 1990, nothing."
While Utah's agricultural industry is not large enough to attract out-of-state beekeepers seeking pollination fees, Jones said there are a few local beekeepers who take their show on the road, usually to California. Jones makes it clear he isn't happy about this.
The problem, he said, is that taking bee colonies out of the state and then bringing them back increases the chances of introducing one of the two varieties of bee mites that have recently entered the United States. These pests, he said, can shorten the already brief (about 40 days) life span of the honey bee.
"It's a free country, but it's a problem that ought to be recognized," Jones said.
No article about bees would be complete without mentioning 1. stings and 2. African killer bees. While the sight of a bee buzzing around the patio sends some people running for the Raid, Jones - who has been stung many times but takes no more notice than the rest of us do to a mosquito bite - says there are only two reasons for a bee to sting: to protect itself and to protect its property.
In other words, leave it and its hive alone and it will leave you alone.
As for so-called African "killer" bees, BEESContinued from D?
Jones said their reputation has been greatly exaggerated - by Hollywood mostly. And despite recent news reports that colonies of Africanized honey bees are moving northward into the United States (they originated in Brazil in 1956 when aggressive African strains were accidentally released into the countryside), Jones said these tropical strains are ill-suited to life as far north as Utah.
Even the European honey bees found throughout the United States have a hard time with Utah winters - the reason Jones keeps most of his colonies in the St. George area. When a bee's body temperature falls below 43 degrees Farenheit, he said, it can't even crawl, let alone fly. The colonies keep just barely warm enough to survive the winter by swarming together and beating their wings, generating heat.
If you think you would like to learn more about beekeeping as a hobby, the Wasatch Bee Club meets monthly. For information, contact Wilford Wouden, president, at 973-0705.