Grassroots

  The Voice of New York Farm Bureau

April 2006 

Beekeeping becoming big business
Bees provide pollination services for orchards and vegetables; honey and beeswax end products

By Keith Button
Contributing Writer

Long Island's Peter Bizzoso traces his family's history in beekeeping back to the 1800s, but in the last couple of years, he has shifted the emphasis at Manorville's South Paw Farm toward pollination.

" 'Bees for hire,' that's my motto," Bizzoso said recently. "I have very good customers on the island. All these farmers are wonderful. They really appreciate the bees when they come out.

"I do everything from cucumbers to melons to apples to apricots to pears. Some of the farms have strawberries and blueberries. They get a double hit of it. They come in pretty close together, and the apples are pretty close behind them."

The schedule generally begins in April, and Bizzoso's North and South Shore clientele keeps him busy right up through the end of the summer, when Bizzoso's bees pollinate the pumpkin crop, he said.

While the Bizzoso family has been making honey since his grandfather started in Brooklyn, Peter Bizzoso said he only recently started getting back into pollination, which was not a big part of the operation for about 40 years.

"The farmers asked for it," he said. "They needed it. It was the old supply and demand. If someone asks for something, you've got to give it to them."

Farmers throughout the state have been making that request in growing numbers.

While Bizzoso, with about 200 hives, classifies himself as a hobbyist, Western New York's Jim Doan makes a living renting bees from his 3,000 hives to farmers near and far.

This winter, Doan had bees in Florida pollinating blueberry and strawberry patches. In the summer, he serves 45 different farms in the Rochester area and beyond.

Doan said the pollination business has really taken off in the last two decades as fruit and vegetable growers expanded their operations.

"Farmers today require more of the managed bees because they don't have as many wild hives available," Doan said. "Let's say there were five wild hives around a field before. Because the fields have gotten bigger, they've pushed out all the hedgerows so the five hives of bees aren't there anymore.

"Because you can't farm hedgerows, and you're paying taxes on that land, you eliminate them."

Apiarists, both professional and hobbyist, fill the gap by renting hives for about $30 to $45 per hive, Doan said. In other parts of the country, the price of pollination is even higher. California almond growers pay anywhere from $100 to $120 per hive; blueberry growers in Maine pay about $60 per hive.

Increased crop value
But the investment is worth it. Those California almond growers can double the value of yield on an acre of almonds from $2,000 to $4,000 by adding a second hive, Doan said. A 2004 article by Cornell entomologist Nicholas Calderone estimated that honey bee pollination adds $14.6 billion per year to agricultural output nationwide.

"In New York, whatever the fruit and vegetable industry is worth, it's all because of us for the most part," Doan said proudly.

Doan, a Farm Bureau president for Monroe County, said that the bee industry is more important in elevating a crop's quality than boosting its quantity.

"With an apple, for example, if you don't have at least five seeds in an apple, it won't be round," he pointed out. "No one wants to buy, for fresh fruit, a flat-sided apple. With a field of cukes, what we're doing with honey bee pollination is making the cucumbers straight.

"Bees increase (farmers') quality and makes a much more saleable crop. That's what our business is all about."

Honey and beeswax
Of course, there is another side to the bee business, and beekeepers have a crop of their own to produce ... actually, two crops: beeswax and honey.

"Beeswax is very important to the food industry," Doan said. "Most all good fine chocolate is made with beeswax. Candy corn is made with beeswax. There is as good a market for beeswax as there is for honey. M&M's don't melt in your hands because they're coated with beeswax."

The honey, meanwhile, sold for an average price of $1.22 per pound and contributed more than $5.3 million to the state's agricultural economy in 2005, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The president of the Empire State Honey Producers Association (ESHPA) said her group works on behalf of apiarists in all aspects of the industry.

"We have commercial beekeepers and hobbyists," said Joan-Ann Howland of Berkshire in Tioga County, who concentrates on beeswax and honey, which she markets under the name Holland's Honey.

Threatened bees
Howland's group helps beekeepers stay abreast of threats to the industry from both man and nature.

Natural threats include the well-publicized Varroa mite, which was introduced to the United States in the mid-1980s and has developed into one of the leading threats to hives in states from coast to coast. In California this winter, farmers say the rental cost per hive has nearly tripled in two years because of a shortage linked to the pest, according to published reports.

"It's a constant battle," Doan said. "It's one of those things where you don't know if you're ahead or behind until you get to the end of the season. The research that's out there [about the mites] is done in a very controlled environment, and we don't have a lot of controls out here in nature."

As an example, Doan said last year's dry summer coincided with a relatively low incidence of Varroa mites in his hive, but another beekeeper he talked to saw significant damage from the pest.

Farm Bureau is a strong supporter of New York's Apiary Research and Extension program and the Apiary Inspection program. Both of these programs provide critical information and disease and pest management strategies to help beekeepers be able to manage hives. The Senate Majority has proposed restoring funding for both programs, and Farm Bureau is hopeful that the final adopted budget will continue funding for both programs.

Howland said the ESHPA has been successful winning approval for the use of formic acid to help control the mites, but now beekeepers are seeking permission to use Oxalic acid, another organic control which has been successful in Canada, she said.

Bizzoso said that for him, mites are not as much of a problem as other environmental risks that his bees encounter.

"I don't consider them as much of a problem as pesticides and things like that," Bizzoso said.

Most of his clients are conscientious about not spraying when there are bees in the field, he said, but his bees are at risk from chemicals they encounter on adjoining fields.

New York's industry is at risk from contamination by Africanized bees, Howland said. Her members are concerned that the more aggressive variety of bee, a problem in states like Texas and Florida, could show up in New York hives. The African variety is more problematic than the European strains bred in the Northeast.

"Africanized bees have been in warmer climates for years, but from what I've heard, they can adapt and get into colder weather areas," Howland said. "They're not 'killer bees' in the sense that they kill people, but they kill off the European bees and take over the hive.

"If you're not used to handling them, it could be a problem. It's not to say our bees can't sting you, but most of the bees in New York State are milder bees."

Howland said her fear is that New York apiarists who ship bees back and forth to the southern states will bring some of the Africanized bees with them. Doan said that is unlikely.

"What we do is, we're re-queening in Florida," Doan said. "We'll go through and kill all the queens. That doesn't guarantee we'll come back with all European bees, but if we find something that's not compatible with us, we'll just simply kill it. Anybody who works with bees on a day-to-day basis is not going to put up with a hive that's intolerable."

Doan said professional keepers like himself have a vested interest in maintaining their hives, whether it be monitoring for diseases like foulbrood or ensuring that less desirable Africanized bees can't gain a foothold in the state.

"Because I'm a pollinator and have so many bees in the field, I have to make sure my bees are gentle," he said. "And if my farmers perceive there is a problem with my bees, I'm out of business."

Vigilance against the Africanized bees will allow apiarists like Bizzoso to continue making claims like this:

"I hardly ever get stung," he said. "The bees are not aggressive. The honeybees are vegetarian, and the yellowjackets are meat eaters. The bees will sting you, but they really have to be provoked."

Bizzoso recalls a recent interview he did with a reporter from a Long Island paper, who continually pressed him for information about how many times he has been stung. It seems that as much as people like honey, the bees responsible for it do not always have the best reputation.

Tourist attraction
But that may be changing.

At Applejacks Orchard in Peru in the Lake Champlain region, the Murray family maintains a demonstration beehive that teaches visitors to their orchard about bees' place in agriculture.

"Not only are the children fascinated, but the adults are as well," Cheryl Murray said. "With the demonstration hive, you're able to see bees in their home, how the queen is handled and how they make honey.

"We've been running it for five years. Last year, when I couldn't get a queen, the hive wasn't set up, and the amount of disappointed faces and questions about it was an eye-opener for me."

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