SALMON RIVER — On a sunny bench along the Salmon River south of White Bird, tens of thousands of honeybees are getting ready for the long trek south to pollinate almond orchards in central California.
Shortly after the first of the year, Mike Moore and his son-in-law, John Roeller, of Craigmont, will load a semitractor-trailer with about 500 beehives and send them to Modesto, Calif., where reliance on bee pollination is critical to producing another nut crop.
Moore has been raising bees since he was about 5 years old, following in the tradition of his parents and grandparents.
“I’m third-generation,” Moore said. “Grandma set me up on a box (at age 5) and started me scraping frames, and that’s how I started. I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Moore’s family has been hauling their bees to the almond orchards in California for about 40 years.
“Everybody in the country does it,” Moore said. “They pay us anywhere from $180 to $200 a hive for pollinating the almonds, and they can’t get enough pollination down there.”
According to Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West, California’s almond orchards covered fewer than 500,000 acres in 1997. Twenty years later, almond orchards cover more than 1.3 million acres and the state grows more than 80 percent of the world’s supply. About 85 percent of the commercial beehives in the U.S. are taken to California to pollinate the crops between February and March. It is the largest pollination event in the world, according to the center.
Almonds are California’s most important crop, valued at $5.33 billion in 2015. There are about 500,000 resident hives in the state, but the almond industry needs 2 million hives to do the job.
Moore and Roeller start preparing their hives for the road trip south shortly after harvesting the year’s honey in September or October.
“We start out after we break the honey down and get all the honey off of them,” Moore said. “Then we work them all down and make sure the queens are good and we doctor them. We want to make sure they’re 100 to 150 pounds (per hive, which includes two boxes).”
Moore’s “doctoring” includes treatment for varroa mites, tiny parasites that infest honeybees and, left unchecked, can kill off an entire hive. Moore said the mites are ubiquitous and to get rid of them, “we try a little bit of everything.”
Moore’s hives have also fallen prey to the mysterious colony collapse disorder that has had a crippling effect on many beehives — both commercial and hobby — around the country. Although scientists have not positively pinpointed the cause of colony collapse disorder, it is believed the bee die-offs may be affected by a number of factors.
Moore said he typically runs about 1,000 hives and expects to lose about 10 percent every year. This year, however, he lost nearly half of his hives.
“I think our biggest problem is the sprays getting in the comb,” Moore said. “It’s everywhere. After California we take them to Washington and pollinate apples and cherries and pears, so we’re up there a month.”
Moore said he has talked to the growers where his bees work about not using pesticides and some of them agree. However, bees can fly as many as 5 miles and even if the orchard where they’re lodged is not using chemicals, other neighbors might be.
Moore typically raises a variety of honeybees called Italians, but recently he’s been trying out a new breed called Carnoleans that may be a bit more resistance to pesticides and mites.
Losing beehives can be downright spooky because it can happen for no apparent reason and almost overnight.
“We lost 300 to 400 (hives) this year, and the problem is, there is not a bee in them. They got brood and honey and all the bees are gone. (Near Craigmont where he lives) we had 72 hives and they were flying around real nice, and a week later, we went out there and there wasn’t a bee.”
Moore said he doesn’t have a clue what happened.
“The farmers up there said, ‘Yeah, they were going like crazy.’ Black clouds (of bees) out there and the next day there wasn’t nothing.”
On a good year, however, Moore will return to Idaho with his hives in early spring and, after a short interval, begin harvesting the honey the bees have collected from their wanderings. He averages 50 to 60 55-gallon barrels of honey each year that he sells mostly to Sue Bee Honey Association of Sioux City, Iowa. What he doesn’t sell there, he peddles locally at craft fairs and Christmas markets.
Roeller, who has been helping out with the operation for about a decade, said there is a real camaraderie among beekeepers who transport their bees to the orchards along the West Coast.
“It’s like, they’re kind of a community, or a brotherhood,” Roeller said. “Everyone’s always willing to help out each other. ... You always help them out because we know how important it is to get these guys where they need to be at the time it needs to be. Because the world’s growing and if these guys can’t do their jobs and help out, well, you can actually notice the difference in the yield in a crop when bees are present and when bees are not.”
Besides the cooperation between beekeepers, Roeller also said there is a fascination among people who deal with bees that makes all the hard work and sacrifice worthwhile.
“To me, it’s like the mystery and the intrigue of it,” Roeller said. “Because, literally, Mother Nature has imprinted on them so that they know what to do with what they have that time of the year and survive. You can go from pallet to pallet and nothing’s ever the same. There’s always something new. They all know what they’re supposed to do and how to do it and they all answer to one lady (the queen bee).”
Hedberg may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 983-2326.