Beekeepers lament losses of colonies, supplies to fires

Issue Date: September 2, 2020
By Christine Souza
Beekeeper Caroline Yelle of Vacaville says her business is “back to ground zero,” and that several other nearby beekeepers also suffered significant losses from a wildifire last month
Photo/Courtesy Caroline Yelle

Beekeepers and bee breeders say California's August wildfires have added more challenges to an already difficult business, with several beekeepers suffering severe damage.

Caroline Yelle, owner of Pope Canyon Queens in Vacaville, lost most of her bees when the lightning-sparked Hennessey Fire swept through her area Aug. 19.

"In one day, that fire burned almost everything we have," Yelle said.

"We think we have 200-300 hives left," she said. "We really don't know because there are some yards that we cannot access, but 500 hives burned. There was nothing left but nails on the ground. You wouldn't even have known there were hives there."

Yelle, who moved to California from Canada a few years ago, raises a subspecies of the Western honeybee to sell queens to Canadian apiarists. She estimated destruction of the 500 hives as a loss of at least $100,000 for the bees alone, plus another $100,000 loss of the benefits from those hives.

"We are back to ground zero," she said.

Beekeeper Rick Schubert, who has kept bees for four decades, helped Yelle settle in California and build the company—but he too suffered severe fire losses, including his newly remodeled home, which also served as the office location for Yelle's business.

The fire burned some hives and not others, Yelle said, adding that the heat from the fires affected the brood and "we lost a new generation of young bees."

Another Vacaville-area beekeeper, Phil Hofland, estimated his fire losses at between $30,000 and $40,000, due to lost equipment such as nucs for raising queens and about a dozen hives that burned.

Having experienced previous fires, he said he has spent much time and energy on creating defensible space.

"We're kind of prepped for this," Hofland said. "It takes a lot of effort, but we prep pretty hard, trimming and mowing grass and moving dirt, so we didn't lose as many bees as we could have. My son went to check on bees at a nearby bee yard, and was able to save two houses just by scraping and mowing."

Beekeepers smoke bees to calm them, but in the case of the recent fires, Yelle said, the bees became "over-smoked, and they go for the honey and start to gorge themselves as a survival instinct. When a big fire goes through a yard like this, the bees start panicking. And now they're starving; they have no flowers and no water."

She said she knew of at least six beekeepers who lost colonies in the fires.

"The bees that remain, I run and feed them, and I'm not the only one; all of the beekeepers who lost bees are doing this," Yelle said.

Bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey of Washington State University, former manager of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of California, Davis, described the losses to beekeepers as "pretty devastating."

Cobey described herself as "good friends" with the affected beekeepers in the Vacaville area, and said they had had to evacuate during previous wildfires.

"If you had enough warning, you could get in there and get a truckload out, but it's pretty harrowing with the wind and the speed of those fires—it was just so outrageously unpredictable," she said.

The fires happened at a critical time of year, when beekeepers repopulate colonies for almond pollination the following February.

"In springtime, you can raise queens and make splits, start small colonies and let them grow. It's too late in the season for that now," Cobey said, adding beekeepers may be unable to "recover what was lost for the almond season, so on top of the losses they've had, that's lost income. It's going to be stressful for the almond growers to try to find enough colonies."

About 2 million honeybee colonies are needed to pollinate the almond crop, and beekeepers already struggle to maintain numbers due to stresses such as the Varroa mite, loss of habitat and other impacts.

Billy Synk, director of pollination programs for Project Apis.m., an organization that funds research into bees, said hives damaged or destroyed by wildfire "are not going to be around to pollinate almonds, because no one's re-queening right now and no colony is getting bigger. If anything, they are reducing, so that is the current struggle for beekeepers between now and February."

Another challenge, Cobey said, will arise from fire damage to bee habitat and forage.

"Nutrition is huge. It's been a real struggle for beekeepers to get the proper nutrition for bees, because they need a diversity of flowers and different pollens to be healthy, so just recovering that habitat that's been lost, that's a difficult one," she said.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




Special Reports

Features

Series

Special Issues

Special Sections