Bees thirst for nectar in drought

Sunday, September 15, 2002

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- The drought that's withering plants and wildflowers where Alan Mikolich raises thousands of bees is pushing him out of the honey business.

With summer production nearly at an end, Mikolich said his bees have produced about 40,000 pounds of the gooey, golden syrup this year. That's down from about 60,000 pounds three years ago.

Mikolich, a beekeeper for 17 years, recently took a part-time job as a mortgage banker to make up for money lost when the honey flow from his 900 hives slowed to a trickle.

"If things go on like this, I'll be making loans next year," he said.

These days, California is not a land of milk and honey for beekeepers. Stung by low rainfall and a lack of wildflowers, they are struggling to survive amid what experts predict will be a 50 percent drop from last year's crop.

Coupled with a production drop in some other states due to weather and pests, consumers are beginning to see a slight jump in prices on store shelves.

"We've been through a major portion of the honey season, and we've seen very little (honey)," said Gene Brandi, chairman of the National Honey Board, an industry promotion group.

In 2001, about 27 million pounds of honey flowed from California hives -- about 15 percent of national production. The wholesale value of honey in the state totaled $18.1 million, topping North Dakota to become the nation's leader, according to National Honey Board statistics.

Bees usually feast on abundant wild plants in California, including black button sage, yellow sumac and holly, along with a steady diet of irrigated crops such as almonds, alfalfa and citrus.

In past years, after downpours triggered by El Nino, beekeepers reported as much as 120 pounds of honey per hive. Brandi, a Los Banos beekeeper with almost 2,000 hives, said he would be happy this year if each one produces 40 pounds.

With rainfall in some areas of the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California down as much as 70 percent, the wildflowers have dried up, denying bees a primary food source. The few remaining plants have produced little nectar, said Eric Mussen, a honey bee expert at the University of California, Davis.

"The plants just can't suck enough juice out of the ground," he said.

Meanwhile, drought, pests and other problems have eroded production in other top honey states, from an estimated 40 percent in North Dakota to about 15 percent in Florida, according to industry experts.

The projected shortage has boosted wholesale prices from an average of 79 cents a pound to as much as $1 a pound and may lead to an increase in imports. Last year, foreign honey was almost half of the nation's supply of 331 million pounds.

"We have a good demand, and the market is requiring more honey," Brandi said. "But the honey's just not there right now."

Some retailers have marked up honey by as much as 10 percent since June, with no dropoff in demand.

To boost supply, some beekeepers have started feeding their colonies sugar water, a nectar substitute that can sustain bees but yields little honey.

Some beekeepers have even moved their hives to feed on irrigated farmland. That could expose the bees to deadly pesticides, even though state law requires farmers to notify nearby beekeepers before spraying any chemicals known to kill the insects.

Mussen said it's critical to keep the number of bees per colony between 15,000 and 20,000 through the tough times so the hives can bounce back into honey production when conditions improve.

Mikolich has taken dramatic steps to save his business. He sent more than two-thirds of his hives to feed in Montana, where clover and other wild plants bloom.

"I would be lucky to break even this year," he said.

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