April showers may bring May flowers, but beekeepers across Idaho would like to see more warm, sunny days.
Cold weather that lingered into April has taken a toll on many hives. Average daily temperatures ranged from near normal on a few days to as much as 11 degrees below normal for an entire week.
“The bees just haven’t had an opportunity to recover,” said Jonathan Millet, a beekeeper from Marsing and president of the Idaho Honey Industry Association. “It takes good weather to recover these bees.”
About half of honey bee’s work these days is pollinating crops. Many commercial beekeepers take their hives to California to pollinate the almond trees, bringing them back to Idaho to recover before going to Washington to pollinate apple trees.
Bees struggled to survive while in California and then returned to find winter still hanging on in Idaho. “Bees just keep dying, bees keep disappearing,” Millet said.
With so few good days in April, the early spring buildup in pollen and nectar production has been delayed. Bees became active on the few warm days and then couldn’t find enough food sources to sustain the colony when cold weather returned.
Good spring moisture should mean good growing conditions for plants and plenty of nectar for bees later in the season, but the long-term forecast continues to call for a cool, wet May.
Millet says it’s too early to tell how this year’s honey production will turn out, but losses this spring will reduce potential poundage. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Idaho honey production totaled 2.65 million pounds in 2010, down 44 percent from the previous year. Adverse weather certainly cut into production but beekeepers say disease also plays a role.
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Kirk Tubbs, who has about 25 hives from Buhl to Malta, says cold alone rarely kills bees. But bees are already weakened from a virus carried by parasitic mites or a fungus are more likely to freeze or starve to death.
Although no one has firm numbers available yet, Tubbs thinks winter losses may be higher than usual based on conversations he has had with hobby beekeepers.
Idaho lost about 5,000 colonies between 2009 and 2010 to 98,000 colonies. Only beekeepers that have five or more colonies are included in the USDA numbers. Colonies are not included if honey is not produced.
According to the USDA, Idaho bees averaged 27 pounds per hive in 2010, down 19 pounds from the previous year. Nationally, honey production averaged 65.5 lbs., up 12 percent from the 58.6 lbs. in 2009.
U.S. honey prices increased to a record $1.60.3 cents per lb., up 9 percent from 2009. Idaho producers received $1.50 per lb. on average.
While honey is still a valuable crop for beekeepers, pollination of crops has become as important or even more so. That’s why Millet is more concerned by the drop in bee numbers rather than the drop in honey production.
“Some years bees make honey and some years they don’t,” he said. “It’s getting harder and harder to rely on honey production.”