The pollination industry


When most people think about bees, they think about honeybees, and specifically honey. But there are 20,000 species of bees worldwide, and the vast majority of them are solitary and do not produce honey. Even honeybees are worth far more than their weight in honey production.

Honeybees and honey I wrote a post a while back about what honey is…essentially a concentrated nectar that acts as a food storage to feed developing worker bees and the hive throughout the year. Because honeybees are social and perennial, they survive in large groups through the winter, subsisting on the honey they store during the summer months. Honeybees are not the only bees that produce honey, but they are pretty much the only source of commercially available honey.


Rented honeybee visiting an apple blossom.

Honeybees and pollination But the main value of honeybees is not in their honey production. For most large scale apiarists, honeybees rake in the cash when they’re used for pollination. The pollination industry in the United States was valued at 15 billion dollars a year (it was a few years ago when I found that statistic…I’m sure it has only gone up). Apiarists rent their hives to farmers with crops that depend on insect pollination (e.g. squash, pumpkins, apples, oranges, almonds, pistachios, peaches, pears, cherries, etc. to name a few).  And insect dependent crops are increasing globally (Aizen and Harder 2009).


Rented honeybee hives are a common sight in apple orchards.

The farmers pay a fee (somewhere around 150$ a hive right now in my part of New York) and the apiarists leave the hives in the field. The bees from the hive fly around and pollinate the crops (hopefully). When the crop is done flowering, the apiarist takes the hives away. The United States is a little different than other countries in this regard because it has a migratory beekeeping practice…beekeepers will truck their bees thousands of miles around the country each year. This is very bad for the bees in general: on the back of the trucks they are tarped in. They can’t leave the hive, so they can’t forage or remove wastes.

Stressful migratory beekeeping practices in the US, source

Stressful migratory beekeeping practices in the US, source

An example of a migratory beekeeping in this country would have hives that overwinter in Florida (where there are flowering plants year round), then are trucked to California in February to pollinate the almonds and other nut crops (like pistachios), then are trucked to Washington and New York to pollinate apples and other stone fruit, Maine to pollinate blueberries, and Pennsylvania to pollinate squash and pumpkins, then back down to Florida. Obviously, these conditions are pretty stressful for the bees, and may be one factor that contributes to Colony Collapse Disorder.


Native bees and pollination Much of my work over the past few years has been on searching for ways to shift our reliance off the honeybee. Depending on one species for 100% of our pollination services is risky business, and Colony Collapse Disorder has brought this vulnerability into the public eye of late. The good news is that there are many, many other species of bees that could act as agricultural pollinators.

Map of states where Colony Collapse Disorder was reported in 2007/2008, source

Map of states where Colony Collapse Disorder was reported in 2007/2008, source

We’re trying to learn about these other species…how important are they to agricultural pollination? How feasible would it be to rely on them for pollination services?  How can we encourage their populations to grow?

We’ve seen a lot of smaller apple orchards that don’t need to rent honeybees because the native fauna is so healthy.  (And in some of the orchards we studied, the manager was so convinced that he/she stopped renting honeybees; here’s one example.) But we’ve also seen a lot of orchards that use so many pesticides that their trees are barren…unless they bring in honeybees.


A wild bee, Andrena mandibularis, on an apple blossom.

The troubles facing the honeybee aren’t going to disappear.  The pathogens and parasites they struggle with will continue to be a problem into the future, and as long as we continue our standard agricultural practices, the honeybees will be too weak to fight back.  The native and wild bees can provide the pollination services we require, but we’re going to have to shift the way we manage agriculture.  They’ll never survive in California’s scorched earth almond orchards.

Or, from what I’m seeing here in the Hudson Valley, in any orchard that sprays heavily.


16 thoughts on “The pollination industry

  1. Thanks for the info! I hadn’t realised how bees were moved around so much in the States. Little wonder they suffer and use of pesticides destroys so much of the other varieties. Hope there is a move to the more natural and healthier fauna.

    • It’s partially the habitat, but it’s also about spraying. Last year I would have agreed with you completely, but I just spent a field season in the Hudson Valley and the orchards there are surrounded by natural habitat…but a lot of the commercial farms still have a depauperate native fauna. Why? They spray so many pesticides!!

  2. In the UK CCD isn’t officially recognised as a problem here. Varroa is the number one honey bee colony killer. Coincidentally – or not – we don’t have a large-scale honey bee pollination industry.

    These orchards seem to have got caught in an unfortunate cycle. They start spraying, so then the native bees die off, so then they need to rent honey bees. If only they could be convinced to stop spraying and plant native flowers in between the trees.

    • Exactly! We think the large scale pollination industry has a lot of attributes that are helping to drive CCD. It’s difficult to convince even orchards with a lot of native bee diversity to stop renting honeybees. They consider it an insurance policy. But the cost of renting a hive is getting higher and the size of the hives is getting smaller…so they’re starting to listen.

  3. Really interesting to know. Your works sounds urgent and fascinating. Here’s to hoping for a whole new approach to pollinators.

  4. Very interesting, I have not heard about anybody paying for bees to pollinate in France but the I have heard that the sunflower that is planted for the oil here is now self-fertile (this is hearsay). The Minister for Environment, Segolene Royal, is trying to implement new measures to support pollinators and it is good to here native bees being mentioned rather than just honey bees. Amelia

    • I’m curious about Europe’s native bees. I’ve never been there, so I don’t have a good feeling for the diversity and abundance of those pollinators. Yes, our government is also mentioning wild pollinators now too. It’s an exciting time!

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