Hive troubles mounting

Imagine having to watch a quarter of your Angus cattle herd suddenly keel over dead in the pasture. Or learning that huge supplies of foreign soybeans are flooding the markets at $1 per bushel. These are the kinds of issues U.S. beekeepers are de...

Imagine having to watch a quarter of your Angus cattle herd suddenly keel over dead in the pasture. Or learning that huge supplies of foreign soybeans are flooding the markets at $1 per bushel. These are the kinds of issues U.S. beekeepers are dealing with right now, with Colony Collapse Disorder making headlines for more than a year and Chinese honey hitting U.S. ports at a fraction of market prices.

There are about 200,000 beekeepers in the U.S., of which only about 1,500 are commercial honey producers. The majority of honeybee keepers sell their honey at the local farmers markets or share it with neighbors. Together, they supply half of the U.S. demand for honey, while the rest is imported from as nearby as Canada and as far away as China.

China syndrome

Canadian honey, like U.S. honey, typically sells at around $1.60 per pound. If that were the norm for all honey prices, import tariffs would not be an issue. But Chinese honey prices dip far below that, and though trade tariffs are in place to prevent dumping honey on the U.S. market, it doesn't always work.

"China has been very creative," says Bonnie Woodworth, former president of the North Dakota Beekeepers Association and owner of 3,800 bee colonies. "One of the ways that they get honey in here is though other countries. They ship it to Taiwan and Vietnam. It's countries that have never been honey-producing countries that are all of a sudden exporting lots of honey."


These same countries have no tariffs in place and therefore provide an effective conduit for Chinese honey.

"It's just like when they had the tariff in place against Argentina, they started bringing it in through Paraguay and Brazil and other South American countries that have never been big honey producers. That's just one way."

Another way in is to sell the honey cheaply enough to get into the U.S. with greatly reduced import tariffs. According to an article published by the Seattle-Post Intelligencer, 6.4 million pounds of Chinese honey valued at just 22 cents per poundrecently arrived at the Port of Los Angeles in California.

Chinese honey also is being blended with less expensive sweeteners and hitting grocery shelves at half the price of U.S. honey. A common diluter is maltose syrup.

"It's similar to high-fructose corn sweetener, only it's made from rice," Woodworth says. "Chemically, it's very, very close to honey, so it's hard to detect."

The overall effect is that domestic honey producers and packers are feeling the squeeze.

"Right now, it's become a price war," she says, recalling the demeanor of the packers at a June honey conference. The honey packers were "stressed beyond belief," because they're competing with this cheap honey.

"It's impossible," she says.


All of this leads to one more problem for the industry. Some are taking the stance, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

"There have been some very reputable, longtime honey producers that have had their ethics -- very good up until this point -- they are now caving in and starting to also use these blends," Woodworth says. "It's becoming more prevalent in the industry, not less."

A possible solution to this would be for the Food and Drug Administration to create a honey identity standard, she says. This would require labeling standards for diluted honey, she says, but the FDA thus far has been unable to do so, owing to an imbalance in workload and staffing.

Disorders and invaders

One of the things that makes it tough to compete against the Chinese prices is apiary management. Keeping bee colonies has been steadily getting more difficult in recent years.

Colony Collapse Disorder, once a European phenomenon, became a serious problem in the U.S. honey industry last year, as the worker bees of a colony would suddenly fly off, leading to the eventual death of the hive. Beekeeping operations hit with CCD suffered, on average, a 45 percent loss of their colonies. Despite the initiation of several major research efforts, few clear answers have yet been offered.

Terry Gregoire, a former North Dakota State University extension agent, keeps about 300 hives with his brother in northeastern North Dakota.

"We had some problems throughout the summer. (The bees) would produce pretty good honey, but then they would disappear in the fall," he says. "We're also having a lot of problems with queen survival. Without an active queen the hive dies, and they're not renewing the queen -- what we call, 'supercedure of the queen' -- is not at all as successful as it was in past years."


Disease, parasites and hive invaders are all converging on U.S. beekeepers these days, making their jobs more difficult.

"It just takes a real high level of management to control the diseases, the parasites, the Varroa mites, and the other things that are coming in," Gregoire says. "The hive beetle is another one that's coming into a lot of operations in the U.S."

This pest arrived in Florida from Africa in 1998 and now has been found in six states, including Minnesota. This pest burrows through a hive's honeycombs, ruining the honey and sometimes causing enough destruction to lead to abandonment of the hive.

Every year, millions of hives are transported from all over the country to California almond orchards for pollination. This mass convergence, some say, leads to cross-contamination and then distribution of diseases and pests to more areas of the country.

"The migratory aspect of this thing with the almonds has gotten to be a really important facet of beekeeping that is not new, but the magnitude of it is new," he says.

As quickly as these new problems are being introduced into these traveling hives, nature is having trouble keeping up.

"In a lot of our bees right now, the genetics seem to be highly susceptible to it," Gregoire says. "So once it gets established the bees aren't able to resist it, and it causes a collapse."

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