John Miller peeled the top off a crate of one of numerous “bee boxes” piled in eight orderly stacks outside a cattle grazing field outside Gackle, North Dakota. There was hardly a buzz in the air. There is nothing, and Miller muttered as he squirmed with a few dozen bees as he took a plastic hive frame from the package.
According to more than a dozen interviews with farmers, bee experts, economists, and farm industry groups, a scorching drought slashes honey production in North Dakota, the top producing state of the sweet syrup.
Miller and other Midwest apiarists transport their drought-stressed insects by truck to California almond farms in the winter to pollinate orchards in the world’s top producer of the nuts. As a result, the drought’s impact will be felt well beyond North Dakota. Shriveled alfalfa fields and dry pastures usually burst with sweet clover and gumweed feed bees with little nectar this summer.
The scarcity of robust bee colonies, as well as the more excellent price of leasing them for pollination services, will exacerbate the difficulties faced by West Coast growers already contending with drought and, in California, skyrocketing water expenditures. It could also add to the already-exorbitant prices that people are paying at the grocery store.
The 2.7 million managed honey bee colonies in the United States, one in every five of which is in North Dakota, are critical to pollinating a wide range of crops, including cherries, peaches, almonds, and apples. According to U.S. government data, income from pollination services was $254 million in 2020. Many beekeepers harvest honey in the northern Midwest and Plains throughout the summer. Bees forage on grasslands and rangelands. They harvest what honey the bees do not swallow or stow away to feed their young.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, North and South Dakota, Montana, and Minnesota produced 46 percent of all honey produced in the United States last year. During the fall and winter, apiarists transport the beehives to milder regions such as California. There they generate vital money by leasing colonies to fruit and nut farms to pollinate crops.
According to agricultural economist Brittney Goodrich, California’s drought-stricken almond growers, who account for roughly 80% of global production, may be in for a surprise come September. Last year, almond growers needed approximately 2.5 million colonies to pollinate acres. This number had more than doubled in the previous 15 years. This happened due to increased demand for almond milk and health items. According to Goodrich, that accounted for almost 88 percent of all managed hives in the United States. They added that the supply of vigorous packs would be scarce this year. Ben King, an almond farmer, has already seen his pollination costs climb from $210 to $230 per hive. Demand for robust colonies has exceeded supply, and beekeepers pass on their higher costs.
Meanwhile, the drought is significantly reducing bee supplies. The beekeeper for King will only promise him 675 hives for the upcoming season. The number went down from the 700 he regularly rents for his orchards near Arbuckle, California.