Moses Lake, WA 98837, USA

Columbia Basin bees constantly on the move

For The Basin Business Journal

EPHRATA — A typical beehive will hold, on average, around 30,000 bees.

Thousands of workers, a few drones, and one queen.

Steve Hiatt, the owner of Hiatt Honey Co., has 18,000 hives. That’s 540 million bees, give or take.

They are busy bees, constantly on the move, and not just the few miles around their hives they need to forage for pollen and nectar. Hiatt’s bees are business travelers, on the road, hard at work, pollinating almond trees in California and yellow clover in the Dakotas.

Working, whether they know it or not, for Hiatt.

“We just finished pollinating almonds, and some oranges, in California, and now the majority of our hives are off to the Dakotas,” he said.

Hiatt stands in the midst of a nondescript Ephrata warehouse, surrounded by hive boxes and a few lost bees buzzing around, while employees clean frames and arrange hives for the next round of six-legged occupants.

It’s how a honey producer like Hiatt stays in business, keeping his hives on the move. There’s just not enough tree fruit or seed crops in central Washington to keep 540 million bees busy.

So, like a lot of people, those bees have to go where the work is.

“My dad bought this business in 1968. Then, honey was about the only income we had,” Hiatt said. “We would pollinate tree fruit and seed crops in the Basin for pay, but that was minimal.”

As farmers in California’s Central Valley expanded the acreage of almond groves, the demand for hives to pollinate those trees grew substantially from $35 per hive in the 1970s to nearly $200 per hive today, Hiatt said. The season lasts from early February through mid-March, and anywhere from 70-80 percent of the nation’s beehives go to California to ensure the pollination of 1.5 million acres of almond trees.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast 2 million hives would be needed to pollinate California’s almond trees this year.

But it isn’t just almonds. Once they’re done in California, many of Hiatt’s hives are strapped to the backs of trucks and hauled to North Dakota, where they will buzz around fields of yellow clover, alfalfa, safflowers and sunflowers collecting nectar to make much of the nation’s honey. Bees make honey itself from nectar, and store it for use as a food during the winter.

“They don’t cut the alfalfa so much; they cut it after it blooms in the Midwest,” Hiatt said.

“In the 1980s, pollination passed honey as the leading source of income,” Hiatt said.

However, over the last several years, Hiatt said honey has slipped to third place as a money earner behind selling bees and queens to other beekeepers seeking to replenish hives depleted by mites and colony collapse disorder (CCD).

In the 1990s, beekeepers across the U.S. found themselves facing a threat from the varroa mite, a tiny, eight-legged parasite that attaches itself to a bee or a honeybee larva, sucks out a bee’s fat cells and spreads several different viruses that can injure or kill bees.

And if mite infestations weren’t enough, beekeepers soon found themselves also dealing with colony collapse disorder, which is the abandonment of a hive, including its queen and most of its developing young, by the bulk of its workers, who simply disappear and never return.

“That’s still a part of our struggle,” Hiatt said. “Hives die for no good reason. You have a good brood, a good queen, good stores, they’re just depopulated.”

While some point to the use neonicotinoid pesticides (synthetic chemicals derived from the nicotine in tobacco, which is sometimes used in gardening as a natural pest controller) in colony collapse disorder, Hiatt says “there’s no one culprit.”

“There’s evidence (neonicotinoids) affect memory, that when they fly they don’t know how to get back. And that would help explain CCD,” Hiatt said. “But they’ve found it in hives not exposed to neonicotinoids. So it can’t be blamed on any one chemical, so far as I know.”

“We just don’t know what it is,” he added.

It does mean, however, that losses over the winter are “pretty substantial;” 30-50 percent of hives, as opposed to 5 percent a few decades ago, Hiatt said, noting that queens don’t live as long anymore either.

“When I was a kid, a queen would last four to five years. Now they last a year, or maybe not a year,” he said.

Wholesale honey prices have been strong in the United States over the last decade, holding well above $5 per pound in 2017 and 2018, according to data published by the National Honey Board. However, domestic wholesale honey prices have fallen this year, dipping to $3.55 per pound in May, the Honey Board reported.

Hiatt said U.S. beekeepers produce around half of the table honey and a quarter of the industrial honey — honey as an ingredient — used in the United States. The rest comes from several major international producers, including China, Canada, Ukraine, Argentina and India.

“In Asia, they make some good honey, but the majority of it is garbage,” Hiatt said. “In their temperate climate, it comes in with so much moisture it has to be mechanically dried.”

In addition, Chinese honey producers use “lots of weird chemicals and prohibited antibiotics,” and some years ago an international trade court found that China and Argentina were “dumping” honey on the U.S. market — selling it for less than it cost to produce it — allowing the U.S. to impose steep tariffs on the two countries.

Hiatt said that while Argentines have changed their ways, the Chinese have not, and have even found ways around the tariffs by shipping to third countries, labeling the honey as their product, and then exporting to the United States.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Honey Report for May, 2019, whole prices for Argentine honey averaged around $1.18 per pound, Indian honey around 87 cents per pound, and around 80 cents per pound for honey from Vietnam. No price was listed for honey from China.

“Packers have a huge reason to use Chinese honey because it’s so cheap,” Hiatt said.

As the only beekeeper on the board of True Source Honey, an industry group that pushes for tighter standards on imported honey, Hiatt said they are trying to get industrial users of honey to tighten up their audit procedures so they know the honey they buy meets domestic standards.

“There’s a lot of work to do, but it’s an effort to try and supply the U.S. with honest and legitimate honey,” he said.

It’s work that keeps Hiatt, and his 540 million bees, very busy. And will for some time to come.

“In the U.S., domestic honey production is really valuable, and it’s good honey,” he said.