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Drought Is Forcing Many Beekeepers And Their Colonies Out Of California

Sep 1, 2015

The lack of rain and snow over the past four years has affected the agriculture industry statewide. That impact includes one of the smallest farmed creatures: the honeybee. FM89’s Ezra David Romero reports that with a lack of flowers to pollinate because of weather conditions bees are struggling and some beekeepers are even leaving the state.

As Gene Brandi and I approach a colony of honeybees near a field of blooming alfalfa east of Los Banos he uses the smoke from a canister of burning burlap to calm the bees, which in turn quiets my nerves.

Gene Brandi uses smoke to calm the bees he works with.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

BRANDI: “It evokes a natural reaction as if there were really a fire and smoke helps to mask the pheromones that they communicate with.”
ROMERO: “I’m surprised that none are landing on me.”
BRANDI: “They’re just doing their job collecting nectar, pollen, water.”

Brandi’s worked with bees since the early 70's. In this field alone he has about 140 hives with around 30,000 bees in each white box.  All together he has over 2,000 hives.

BRANDI: “I’m gonna pull out this next frame here. Looking for the queen again, there she is. Do you see the queen right there by my thumb?”
ROMERO: “Oh, yeah.”
BRANDI: “She’s still laying eggs.”

It’s in this dry time that Brandi says honeybees and their beekeepers are suffering. The extreme weather conditions have reduced the amount of forage, crops and wildflowers where the bees collect pollen and nectar. Usually in the Valley there are crops and some sort of wildflowers blooming year round. But this year there’s just not enough plants and trees in bloom for the 500 plus commercial beekeepers in the state to remain profitable.

Although with this particular colony of bees Brandi’s been lucky.

Bees are an important part of life in Central California, but mainly for pollination.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
"Our bees are basically livestock that we need to keep fed, disease free and pest free as possible. So if there's not adequate feed we need to supply it otherwise they"re not going to make it, they're going to die." - Gene Brandi

He’s strategically placed his honeybees in somewhat of a desert oasis. A well is pumping water into a canal with blooming thistle on the banks. Beyond the canal is blooming alfalfa and cotton fields, but desolate fallow farmland surrounds this area.

“In drought years we just don’t make as much honey," Brandi says. "I mean we’re very thankful that we have places like this where the bees have made some honey this summer.”

Because of the lack of natural food for the honeybees, many beekeepers have to feed their colonies pollen substitutes like patties made from pollen and essential oils. They also are providing a honey substitute like high fructose corn syrup to feed the bees.

Gene Brandi has over 2000 hives across California.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

“Our bees are basically livestock that we need to keep fed, disease free and pest free as possible  and so if there’s  not adequate feed we need to supply it otherwise they’re not going to make it, they’re going to  die," says Brandi.

The quality of these meal substitutes isn’t as good as the real deal. It’s kind of like fresh versus frozen vegetables. And they are expensive.  Beekeepers are also supplying bees with water.

“In the Valley the inside of the beehive can get up to 130-140 degrees," says Brandi. "Bees have to cool that. They’ll distribute water droplets throughout the inside of the colony and they will fan their wings. Cool by evaporation like the old swamp cooler.”

The expense in providing food and drink to the bees is causing beekeepers to send their hives to Midwestern states like Oklahoma.

"Bees are like cattle in the sense that the pasture can be overcrowded and even though we have less forage then normal it's still more forage then other parts of the state." - Gene Brandi

Tim Tucker's a beekeeper in Kansas and the President of the American Beekeeping Federation.

“Commercial beekeepers are having difficult times keeping bees alive and they’re kind of spread out," Brandi says. "They’re going to Montana and they’re going to North Dakota and maybe into Nebraska and Iowa.” 

Even though the drought is affecting honeybees on the west coast Tucker says that honey production nationwide hasn’t seen a large decrease because of it.

“In the past you’ve had some good orange blossom and sage come out of California. But there’s just not a lot of good honey producing areas in the Valley," says Tucker. "I mean California’s a desert; the crops there don’t provide abundant resources for the bees."

But bees play an integral role all year around in the Valley as the region’s 400 plus crops bloom in different seasons; especially when the regions 1 million plus acres of almonds flower in the spring.

Gene Brandi has been in the bee industry since the 70's. In the past 10 years he said it's been a tough time to be a beekeeper.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

Ryan Jacobsen is the CEO of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.

“Beekeepers are having to do all they can do to keep those bees moved around from area to area to area trying to take advantage of anything that may be seasonal in nature and a potential feed  source for those bees," Jacobsen say. "And as they go in the winter if the feed stuff isn’t just there its obvious concern of what next year’s batch is going to look like.”

Jacobsen also notes that this drought is really the second punch to the beekeeping industry in the past 10 years. Some reports say that the unexplained colony collapse disorder has killed around 40 percent of the honeybees in the west.

That expense of moving bees and risk of weakening colonies is why beekeepers like Brandi have taken the risk of not sending their bees elsewhere. 

BRANDI: “Bees are like cattle in the sense that the pasture can be overcrowded and even though we have less forage then normal it’s still more forage then other parts of the state.”
ROMERO: "So these bees are lucky?"
BRANDI: “These bees right here are very fortunate that they’ve had natural food to work on.”

And just like every other farmer in the region, Brandi and his beekeeping counterparts say rain is the only true answer in reviving the California beekeeping industry.