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Queen-bee breeders say lack of rain may intensify demand

Issue Date: April 28, 2021
By Ching Lee
Shasta County queen bee producer Matt Stayer packages queens for shipment. His company, Stayer’s Quality Queens in Palo Cedro, ships about 1,000 queens a day this time of year.
Photo/Lori Eanes

Warm, sunny spring days have been ideal for beekeepers who produce queen bees, but those beekeepers warn that lack of rain this season will make for a difficult year for the pollinators to find enough forage to sustain their colonies.

If colonies fail due to lack of nutrition, more queens will be needed to produce more bees, keeping queen breeders as busy as the bees they work with.

Demand for queen bees soars in the spring. April and May represent the highest production months for queen producers, as this is when other commercial beekeepers need new queens to replace old ones, try to increase colonies by splitting them and make up for losses they experienced during the winter.

"We're kind of the backbone of keeping the bees alive," said Matt Stayer, a queen bee producer in Shasta County. "We can take one queen and make thousands out of her."

This time of year, Stayer's Quality Queens—which Stayer runs with his wife Sara and which raises queen bees in 36 locations in Northern California—typically catches and ships about 1,000 queens a day.

As with most California queen breeders, the Stayers join other commercial beekeepers in almond orchards earlier in the year, renting their bees to pollinate the crop. But in April and May, they focus on queen production, selling queens to beekeepers throughout the U.S. and Canada.

"The demand is so high, we have to turn people down. We can't produce enough of them," Matt Stayer said, adding that his queens are typically presold and he's "booked tight."

Beekeepers need queens when they divide hives into multiple colonies that have been swelling since February, when the insects collect their first big meal of the winter by pollinating California's 1.3 million acres of almond trees.

Not only are beekeepers trying to establish and build large populations of bees in the spring to make honey crops in midsummer, Stayer said, but they want big, strong hives going into next year's almond season, when demand for bees can push rental prices upwards of $200 per hive.

"That's the big challenge, is getting those colonies through the winter and into the orchards," said Ben Sallmann, a honeybee health specialist for the Bee Informed Partnership, a national nonprofit that works to better understand how to manage healthier bees.

California beekeepers lost an estimated 42% of their colonies in the 2019-20 season, similar to the 44% national average, according to an annual Bee Informed survey.

Higher bee losses have created more demand for queens, said Buzz Landon, who produces queen bees in Butte County and serves as president of the California State Beekeepers Association.

Landon said queen breeders have responded through the years by increasing production, with more people getting in the business, but they have not been able to satisfy peak demand that typically occurs in early April.

With plenty of clear-sky days and temperatures reaching into the 70s this spring, he said "this has been a really good year" to produce queens, which require such conditions to fly and mate properly.

"We try to hit this window of nice weather in April, May for queen production," he said. "But it's going to get dry here really quick, and a lot of the flowers are going to be done because of the dryness. It's going to make the end of our season more difficult."

Finding locations for bees to forage has become harder, Landon said, and with more beekeepers expanding production to try to meet growing demand, they're "stepping on each other … like too many cows out in the pasture."

Beekeepers said putting large numbers of bees in too few places makes it easier to spread disease, viruses and pathogens among hives.

"It's a colossal experiment to put 2 million hives of bees in one valley together, and then not expect that we're all going to catch a cold," Tulare County beekeeper Steve Godlin said.

With his bee losses as high as 40% the last few years, Godlin said he wants to give his hives "every bit of help."

To ensure colonies have young, vital and productive queens, commercial beekeepers typically replace as many of their queens annually as they can afford to, he said. Despite the effort, he said, "we haven't really gotten very far on solving why our mortality is this high," even though "a ton of science" has gone into studying queens, bee genetics, and mites and other potential culprits that could be harming bees.

At Bee Informed, Sallman said he considers mites "the biggest factor when it comes to bee health," adding that if a colony becomes infested, "it's almost a death sentence."

Queen selection, he said, may be one way to help beekeepers defend against mites. Some queen bees carry genes that allow them to counteract the varroa mite, Sallmann said. They produce worker bees that can detect the parasites, disrupt their breeding, clean the hive cells of disease and thereby control the mites without as much chemical treatment. Queen breeders screen for this trait, he said.

"This is a big, new frontier with queen breeding," Sallmann said. "That's a really promising new avenue for producing stronger bees."

Shasta County queen producer Jackie Park-Burris said there's been a push to test queens for this desirable trait "so that you can keep a cleaner bee," adding that she uses hygienic screening to improve her stock and "to up our game."

With competition for queens in the spring, she said more beekeepers now request queens in the fall, and more breeders try to accommodate. Park-Burris, Stayer and Landon said they all produce queens in the fall, but not in the large numbers as in the spring.

Landon also sells package bees, consisting of 3 pounds of bees and a queen, as well as starter hive nucs—or nucleus colonies—that are small hives, which he said also drive demand for queens.

He said sales of packages tend to be steadier with hobbyists and less so with commercial beekeepers, who look to packages when they experience heavier bee losses and hives too weak to split.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

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




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