Beekeeper Gene Brandi has been stung plenty of times in his lifetime but nothing will compare to the pain he and consumers will feel if the California drought continues and his bees are left without forage.
Spring is the busiest time of year for honey bees, as they pollinate more than 800,000 acres of almonds and other valley crops. The flying insects are a crucial link in food production because they make a good part of agriculture possible.
“Honey bee pollination supports an estimated $15 billion worth of agricultural production, including more than 130 fruits and vegetables that are the foundation of a nutritious diet,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in announcing $3 million last month to improve the health of honeybees. “The future security of America’s food supply depends on healthy honey bees.”
In Merced County, agriculture is a $3 billion industry, said David Robinson, county ag commissioner. Bee pollination brought in $22 million in 2012, according to the county crop report, and honey $2 million.
Brandi owns Gene Brandi Apiaries, which specializes in honey, pollination and bulk bees. He has experienced dry years in 2012 and 2013, but a third year of drought will likely take its toll on his hives because of a lack of wildflowers.
“The bees do much better in years when we have at least normal or above normal precipitation,” he said. “Rain means more flowers for later and more nectar production later for honey.”
There should be blooming mustard, filaree, and other native California plants popping up that would provide pollination and food for the bees.
Beekeepers will be feeding their colonies sugar syrup and a protein supplement to make up for the lack of blooms.
“The bees need nutrition,” Brandi said. “So if nature doesn't provide it, then we have to.”
That lack of wildflowers and a reduction in crops yields due to a lack of irrigation water will take their toll on honey bees, which are already under stress. They have been dying in record numbers, and their drastic rate of loss will result in higher food prices and decreased food availability.
“Back in the 1970s when I started keeping bees, it was not uncommon to lose 5 percent or fewer of our bee colonies over the winter,” said Brandi. “In recent years, it has been difficult to keep the colony losses under 20 percent.”
Brandi is moving his bees out of almond orchards to Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. “Right now, because it really didn’t start raining there until a couple of weeks ago, there’s no mustard or filaree or any ground flowers at all, and normally there would be.
“We’re hoping that these plants are going to come along later,” he said. “Certainly, the California native plants like sage, buckwheat, toyon, have so little moisture that they’re likely not going to do anything for the bees at all this year.”
Brandi moves his hives six times per year and has around 2,000 colonies.
Prior to the almond season, Brandi takes the bees to the Central Coast. In February he brings the colonies back to the valley for the almond pollination.
Many growers on the West Side of the valley, because of the zero percent allotment, have pulled almond acreage.
“The prospects for a great honey crop this year are not looking good,” he said. “We’re always hopeful that we could have a March miracle or an April miracle, where we have above normal rainfall in the springtime that could be helpful.”
“We made some honey in 2011 but other than the honey we make here in the summertime, in the valley, off the alfalfa and cotton fields, we really haven’t had a good honey crop since 2010.”
Brandi believes more and more beekeepers will likely be searching for out-of-state destinations for summer because of the grim outlook. “In addition to people, like my brother, who have been going out of state for over 30 years,” he said, “there are people, that maybe normally would not go out of state, that are seeking pastures in other states.”
The Midwest is already a popular place for California beekeepers in the summertime, he said, and additional bees would likely be overtaxing.
“Our summer pasture situation here is up in the air,” he said. “but it doesn’t look good for bee pasture in California for 2014 because of the drought.”