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Published January 06, 2014, 09:44 AM

Working with the hive

In the relatively invisible world of commercial honey producers, David Moreland is a newcomer and a rarity — a Californian almond grower who started his own apiary to pollinate his crops, as well as a research company to study colony collapse disorder.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

TOWNER, N.D. — In the relatively invisible world of commercial honey producers, David Moreland is a newcomer and a rarity — a Californian almond grower who started his own apiary to pollinate his crops, as well as a research company to study colony collapse disorder.

Three years ago, Moreland, 62, bought a honey house from Leroy Brandt, who had an Oakdale, Calif., apiary that operated in the Towner, N.D., area. AgPollen Apiaries LLC now jockeys bees back and forth from Moreland’s home in Waterford, Calif., to Mississippi and North Dakota.

“I’m the new kid on the block,” Moreland acknowledges.

AgPollen Apiaries, a North Dakota company, runs about 2,000 to 3,000 hives. “We’re kind of at the small end of the big guys or the big end of the little guys and satisfying our own pollination needs in California,” Moreland says.

Most almond growers don’t keep bees, Moreland says, and there’s a reason for that.

“They’re a pain in the rear,” he deadpans. “You can’t turn them off and go away. You’re with them all the time and these days beekeeping is every month, every week, every day. In the old days, you could kind of put the bees down for the winter and come back in the spring, but not anymore.”

This year, Moreland got less than 60 percent of the crop he normally expects in North Dakota — often the No. 1 honey producing state in the country, partly because of bee health, and partly because of what he calls “something called corn and soy.”

“Those crops don’t produce honey, of course, and that’s replaced Conservation Reserve Program lands,” he says. But even beyond that, the bees were erratic. “We got good production on some and terrible or no production on some. It doesn’t make sense.”

Few producers are working as hard to find out more about the problem.

From surf to turf

Moreland’s path into the sticky business of honey isn’t typical. He grew up in Phoenix, Ariz., and went to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. He got a degree in mechanical engineering and from 1973 to 1979, moved six times — first to Greece, finally to San Diego.

In 1979, he moved to Silicon Valley and worked in finance, eventually owning his own company. On the side, he operated an 800-cow Angus cow-calf ranch in Walden, Colo., south of Laramie, Wyo.

“I spent 14 years learning how to lose money in the cattle business,” he says.

Around 2002, he sold out of both enterprises and bought into almond and walnut orchards east of Modesto, Cal-if., and into grapes in Napa Valley.

The biggest single expense for an almond grower is pollination, he says.

“An almond grower is spending $300 to $350 an acre for pollination.”

Moreland has 750 acres of almonds and 100 acres of walnuts.

Great blue hope?

Like other almond producers, Moreland has become increasingly concerned about bee health and a collection of problems lumped together called colony collapse. He calls it a catch-all term for “anything and everything that’s going wrong with bees.” Essentially, hives dwindle and disappear.

In 2007, Moreland created AgPollen LLC, a California resarch company, in an attempt to commercialize the blue orchard bee for almond pollination. The blue orchard bee (Osmia lignaria, or orchard mason bee) is one of a handful of potential alternatives to honeybee pollination. The insect is native to California and prevalent in Western states. It is a good pollinator of prunus fruit crops such as almonds, plums and cherries, as well as apples and pears.

Blue orchard bees are solitary bees, unlike the honeybees that live together in hives. The females are bigger than a honeybee and are a dark, metallic blue color. They are wild-type bees, but companies are working on ways to domesticate, breed and manage them.

AgPollen did several research projects from 2008 to 2011 with scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service non-honeybee lab in Utah, and the Red River Valley lab in Fargo, N.D. The company hired two full-time entomologists. The one that remains, Steve Peterson, holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. A three-year, $300,000 USDA grant was used to help make the bees’ nest more attractive, so their population would increase to commercial levels. Peterson and colleagues made some progress, creating an aerosol delivery for an attractant.

Separately, Peterson is looking for ways to help blue orchard bees develop quickly over the summer and get enough wintering days so they’re ready to pollinate in February.

Timing is everything

“We see a real fit for almond because there’s such a need and they are native to the region,” Peterson says. “The one thing that’s difficult is we have to advance their life cycle a bit so they come out in February (when almonds bloom). Normally, they want to come out a month later.”

Moreland says until they can produce bees at a lower cost, honeybees are still the most effective. In 2010, the company added honeybee research projects.

“One of the things I think all of us agree on is if the temperature in honeybee hives varies even by a couple of degrees at the center, the hives start suffering greatly,” he says. “We’re trying to look at the organism of the hive as a whole.”

Moreland also wonders whether genetically modified organisms in canola may have affected bees’ ability to produce pollen.

Is it neonicotinoids?

Moreland thinks a big part of the problem may be neonicotinoid chemicals, a class of insecticide introduced in late 1990s and now prevalent as a corn seed treatment, among other things. Neonicotinoids are systemic, going into the pollen and the nectar.

“The bees get it and they take it back to the hive, to their young,” he says. An Italian study published in December 2013 says neonicotinoids are suppressing bees’ immune systems, which would help them fight off viruses.

On July 12, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., introduced H.R. 2692, called the Save the Pollinators Act. If passed, it would suspend four neonicotinoids, including three that on Dec. 2 were banned on bee-friendly crops in the European Union. It would also require a joint study of the bee population declines by the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency. Moreland isn’t optimistic it would pass in the Senate.

Moreland doesn’t avoid putting bees near corn, but he thinks there may be some neonicotinoid seed treatments on corn that can be released when planters are being cleaned out. The chemicals are also used in gardens, lawns and on ornamental trees.

He thinks there are other problems — varroa mites, the “nosema apis” parasite, among them, he acknowledges.

“When you add all these things together, you weaken the bees,” he says. “Then, if anything goes wrong, they can get sick and die. In a hive, if you start losing bees, then you don’t have enough nurse bees to cover the brood and the brood starts to dwindle. The hive dwindles.”

Whatever the cause

Until science figures it all out, Moreland must go to great lengths to offset the effects of colony collapse — whatever its cause.

“We go into the almonds Feb. 15,” he says. “Almonds all bloom Feb. 15, which is hard to think about (for other crop producers).” At the end of March, he goes to Mississippi to split the hives into two or three boxes, he says.

“By then, the hives are strong with almond nectar and pollen,” he says. “We’re in Mississippi six to eight weeks — long enough to grow those boxes to get to be strong single boxes. We bring singles up to North Dakota, put a second box on and feed them into May until things start to bloom in North Dakota.”

The company gets permission from a landowner and usually places 40 hives in a location, making honey off canola, clover, alfalfa or weeds. At the end of August, they start extracting. That process usually takes about 30 days. AgPollen Apiaries is a member of the Sue Bee Honey cooperative, so sends honey and wax for processing in Sioux City, S.D.

In mid-October, Agpollen Apiaries loads the hives back on trucks and takes them down to California, so the process can start all over.

“I’m going to Mississippi because I can’t replace them fast enough in California,” he says. He feels fortunate to be in the so-called Pine Belt in south central Mississippi where there’s “no farming going on, no chemicals.”

In California, there are hundreds of thousands of hives on the ground in fields in a rest period, while the worker bees keep the queens warm as the temperatures are in the 40s or 50s.

“They just slow down,” he says.