In the darkness before dawn, a forklift piles multicolored boxes atop a flatbed trailer hitched to a semi-truck. Staged on the accommodating flat ground of a gravel pit near Rulison, hundreds of the painted wooden boxes await shipment.
The boxes are full of living honeybees — strong, thriving colonies with prolific queens. It’s November and it’s cool, and it’s still nighttime, so the hives’ residents stay quietly bunched up inside, despite the bumps and jolts delivered by the forklift’s steady work.
This is how bees migrate. Unlike birds that fly guided by a mysterious dead reckoning, migratory bees accomplish their winter journey to the promise of sweet nectar from blooming flowers stacked in miniature high-rise apartments hauled by semi trucks.
Bee Super Bowl
From mid-October until a few days after Thanksgiving, eight trucks left for California loaded with bees belonging to second-generation beekeeper Paul Limbach of Silt. Each semi-load carried 400 or more beehives. Limbach shipped about 3,000 hives, but that is a mere drop in the oceanic tide of bees moving west from all parts of the country this time of year.
It’s a spectacle more than one beekeeper calls “the Superbowl of beekeeping.”
Limbach keeps 2,500 colonies in bee yards scattered around western Colorado, from Silt and Rifle to Meeker and Craig to the Flat Tops and Trapper’s Lake. His honey sells in stores under the Epicurean label. Those in the know buy it directly from a small farm store behind his honey house across the road from the venerable old stone house where the 66-year-old grew up and learned the art of beekeeping from his father.
Sitting in a small, chilly office surrounded by paint cans and plastic buckets of honey, Limbach says each of his few thousand hives produces an average of 50 pounds of honey. But these days, he earns half his income by shipping bees to California to pollinate almond trees.
Almonds command a high price and are growing in popularity internationally. The tasty nut touted for its health benefits and Apis mellifera, the European honeybee, evolved together in the warmer European climates of the Mediterranean, according to Limbach.
“The almond industry is huge,” said Limbach, “and completely dependent on honey bees.”
Without bees, an acre of the trees will produce 400 pounds of almonds. Bees increase the yield to 2,400 pounds or more per acre.
1.5 million hives
The climate of the Central Valley in California is peculiarly suited to growing almonds, with a requisite cold snap in the winter and mild enough temperatures for the bloom in February and March.
In 1987 Limbach sent his first load of bees to California. This year he shipped 2,273 beehives of his own, along with smaller numbers belonging to other area beekeepers.
“It takes almost all the commercial bees in the U.S.,” he said.
This year, almond growers will need 1.5 million hives, said Lyle Johnston, a Colorado beekeeper who brokers bees for California almond growers.
Johnston was raised in Fort Lupton, where his grandfather founded the family’s beekeeping operation in 1908. He used to tend 10,000 of his own hives in Rocky Ford and first brought bees to California in 1986. The next year he added some of Limbach’s bees, calling him a “charter member.”
This year he will oversee the travel plans for 150 semi-loads of honeybees on a destination vacation to winter in California.
Johnston is a past president of the American Honey Producers Association, the largest national trade group for beekeepers. His network of acquaintances there caused his business to mushroom.
“A lot of guys in the association knew me, and they just started asking, ‘Hey, would you take a load or two of our bees,’” said Johnston, “and before you know it, it just kind of dominoed.”
Today Johnston is the biggest bee broker in California. This year he’ll deliver 65,000 hives to the almond bloom, leasing the bees from their owners, lacing them through the orchards, feeding and guarding them against theft. After moving 8,000 hives from Colorado, he’ll move on to southern states where the cold comes later: Texas, Florida, South Carolina, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia.
Almonds go nuts
In the years since Johnston began bringing his bees, California almond production has tripled. From 280,000 acres in almonds in 1986, the crop now approaches 1 million acres today, he said.
Vineyards and cotton fields are plowed under every year to plant more almonds. Nurseries are booked two years out for young trees.
“You can’t even get a tree until 2016,” said Johnston.
Factors from global demand to the weak dollar drive the business.
California with its made-to-order climate grows 80 percent of the world’s almonds.
“The world market for almonds is just prolific right now,” said Johnston. “They can’t produce enough almonds.”
And then there are the bees.
Last year not enough bees arrived in California to satisfy the demand from almond growers for two hives per acre. Partly to blame are mounting challenges beekeepers face as pesticides, diseases and other stressors weaken the insects.
One such stressor is the migration itself. First, there’s the road trip, which isn’t exactly natural for bees, and may include freezing cold or scorching heat. Bees ship out of Colorado before the coldest weather, and drivers may drench hot, thirsty bees with water at the truck wash. But as Johnston points out, Florida bees travel 3,000 miles to reach the almond bloom.
The California orchards are a hotbed for spreading honeybee diseases. The Asian Varroa mite, which weakens bees and makes them susceptible to diseases, was unknown in Colorado before the mid-1990s. The annual mingling of billions of honeybees has aided and sped the spread of mites to every part of the U.S. Nosema ceranae is another exotic bee disease spreading quickly.
Pesticides are known bee killers. Recently researchers began taking a closer look at fungicides, which growers spray on the flowering almonds. Beekeepers like Johnston are persuading growers to take up bee-friendly practices.
“Most of our guys are all spraying at nighttime, and that seems to alleviate a lot the problem,” he said. Spraying during daylight puts bees in direct contact with the chemicals, which they bring back to the hive, harming the larvae.
Even though beekeepers select their healthiest hives for the journey, heavy losses are typical.
“A lot of bees died last year,” said Johnston. “We expect the same this year.”
Limbach said he lost 30 percent of the bees he sent to California last year.
Catching the buzz
Ed Colby sent bees to California in October for the first time.
”I’m going to give it a try,” he said.
Colby has kept bees near New Castle for 20 years. He sells the honey from his 100 or so hives locally. He typically practices a more local style of migratory beekeeping by loading 10 hives into the back of his red Chevy pickup a couple of times in March and April to pollinate cherries and apricots in Palisade and Grand Junction.
This year he piggybacked 40 hives onto Limbach’s shipment to the California almonds.
“Bees come back from California loaded with mites and every other disease that you can think of,” said Colby. “But the upside is they pay you money, and it’s good money.”
Brokers like Johnston are paying $175 per hive now. Johnston said that’s a 20 percent increase in price this year. Colby said after expenses he hopes to clear $125 per hive.
“It’s a pretty small business,” he said, “and $5,000 is a big chunk.”
There are other upsides. The survivors often come back well-fed and bursting with bees and brood. Colby expects to be able to divide the returning hives to grow his operation.
“You can make two hives from one,” he said.
Colby remains ambivalent as to whether the almond bloom and its attendant impacts on bees and beekeepers is good or bad, but he can’t resist its allure.
As he put it, “It’s the most spectacular extravaganza of beekeeping in the world.”