Food manufacturers and Agriculture/Farming and Energy & Environment

Indiana short on honeybees

June 25, 2007

A cold snap wiped out at least half of Indiana's honeybee hives over the winter. For some beekeepers, the loss was as high as 80 percent.

Fortunately, most don't look to bees for their livelihood. For them, the decline might mean their hobby will cost them this year rather than make them a small profit.

But there are a handful of commercial beekeepers in Indiana. And for these small, family-owned businesses, weathering the setback might be tough.

"The spring of 2006 and 2007 are the worst I've ever had," said Tracy Hunter, owner of Hunter's Honey Farm in Martinsville. "This is pretty bad."

Indiana last year had 6,000 hives, which produced 324,000 pounds of honey, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That's just two-tenths of 1 percent of the nation's honey production.

Nowadays, honey production is just one way beekeepers make money.

In the early 1990s, a parasitic mite epidemic virtually wiped out the wild bee population and also took a large toll on kept bees. After that, orchards and farmers started renting hives to make sure their trees, melons and pumpkin crops were pollinated.

While the extra money from hive rentals helps, it's no panacea for a struggling industry.

Rapture of the bees?

Indiana beekeepers have taken the biggest hits from mites, which continue to decimate hives. When mites strike, dead bees pile up.

This year, a February cold snap killed off many hives because the bees were unable to move well enough to get to the stores of honey they needed to eat.

It could be a lot worse. Indiana so far has no confirmed cases of a mysterious--and alarming--plague that has struck portions of the United States. The unidentified disease causes bees to disappear.

Typically, when bees die in a hive, corpses remain, providing clues as to what happened. Other bees come in to raid leftover honey, and wax moths invade to lay eggs.

But with the plague--called Colony Collapse Disorder--the bees simply vanish, and other bees and moths won't touch what's left. Some beekeepers have dubbed it the "rapture of the bees." Theories on the cause have ranged from a fungus to signals from cell phone towers.

"The mystery is that the bees go out and just don't come back--there's nothing to examine," said Steve Doty, president of the Indiana Beekeepers Association Inc., which runs beekeeping classes and holds regional meetings.

At least indirectly, Indiana beekeepers are feeling effects of the disorder--since it limits the availability of replacement bees.

And some beekeepers in the state suspect it has struck here. They say mites and bad weather aren't enough to explain all the state's bee deaths.

At least one Indiana report of the disorder has been lodged with an online survey maintained by Montana-based Bee Alert Technology Inc.

"We have just been inundated with people wanting to buy bees," said Tom Eisele, who runs a commercial pollination business with 1,400 hives in Westfield. "We've never had a year where everybody has lost so many hives."

Living off honey

About 95 percent of beekeepers in the state are hobbyists, said Doty, a General Motors retiree with 17 hives.

Most years, the Fortville resident is able to make a profit selling honey from home and to local health food stores. But in tough years, he has to buy bees to repopulate his hives and loses money.

Rob Green--who runs the not-for-profit Indiana Beekeeping School as well as a small, for-profit honey-products business and an IT consulting firm--said he's into it for pleasure, not profit.

"My accountant hasn't told me to stop doing it yet," said the Brownsburg resident.

But commercial operators can't afford such a laid-back approach. They've had to readjust their business plans to adapt to the difficult conditions. Most now make most of their money on hive rentals.

Local prices for hive rentals can run $30 to $50 per hive for the owner to park them in an orchard or field for an entire blooming period-usually two weeks.

For example, Eisele is a one-man show and makes about 85 percent of his revenue from renting hives and another 15 percent from selling honey to Marsh groceries and health food stores.

His hives are set up on pallets. He uses a customized forklift to load the hives onto the back of his truck by himself. He ties them down, tops them with a tarp, then hauls them around the state.

"It's a very hard, physical job," he said. "But you can make one hell of a living."

The work is all-consuming in the spring, when crops are blooming, and in the fall, when the bees need lots of maintenance. But other seasons are light. He spends about 1,200 hours a year on the job--a little more than half that of a typical full-time worker--leaving time for hunting and fishing trips over the winter.

He and other commercial beekeepers declined to disclose annual revenue. But Eisele said he figures out what he needs to make per year and calculates backward from there. His rates can be up to 50 percent higher than other pollinators'.

"Many people in agriculture are not businesspeople," he said. "They will run around and charge $1 less [than their competitors] to get the business."

He said farmers and orchards are willing to pay him more because he offers firm contracts with guaranteed quality and delivery times.

The state's largest commercial beekeeper--Clover Blossom Honey in La Fontaine, just west of Marion--also focuses on pollination.

Owner David Schenefield manages 2,300 hives that produce as many as 360 55-gallon drums of honey a year.

He said CCD has raised the prices almond orchards in California will pay for each rental hive during the month-long blooming period from only $40 a couple of years ago to as high as $150.

Enticed by the price, he decided to take a chance early this year. In mid-February, he trucked hundreds of hives to California. But high shipping costs, bee stress and the inability to get contracts for all his hives means he won't be trying it again.

For Indiana's later blooming period, however, Schenefield has more business than he can handle.

"We've already turned people away because we didn't have enough bees," he said.

Hunter, owner of Hunter's Honey Farm in Martinsville, focuses more on the retail end of the bee business. He's developed niche products, including a honey teriyaki cooking sauce and honey-flavored dog biscuits.

Normally, he also makes extra money by raising queen bees and by splitting strong hives and selling the extra. But this year he's had to buy bees to rebuild his population.

Hunter said it will be a struggle to fulfill pollination contracts. He's considering how much he'll need to raise honey prices to break even this year.

"Beekeeping is like any agriculture--the income looks great," he said. "But when you back out expenses, you're barely breaking even. It's a lifestyle for us."

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