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Bee Economy: Honey, Mites and Diesel Drive Pollination Fees

Bees don't always work for free.

Many crops rely on pollination by honey bees and, as a result, there’s a market for the services of professional beekeepers and their bees. And the cost of those services has been on the rise. What’s driven the increase in pollination fees over the past 20 years? A new study from North Carolina State University shows that honey prices, invasive mites and the cost of diesel fuel are key factors.

“This is the first comprehensive analysis of North American pollination markets, and we wanted to better understand the economic forces that drive pollination fees,” says Walter Thurman, an agricultural and resource economist at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the study. Pollination fees are the rates charged by a beekeeper for providing a single colony of around 30,000 bees while a given crop is blossoming.

The paper, “The Economics of Honey Bee Pollination Markets,” was published in the most recent issue of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. It was co-authored by Randal Rucker of Montana State University and Michael Burgett of Oregon State University.

Honeybee pollination is essential to crop agriculture in the United States and pollination fees have, for the most part, risen slowly but steadily over the past 20 years. Some crops, such as clover and blueberries, can be pollinated while also allowing bees to build up supplies of honey. These are called “honey crops.” Other “non-honey crops,” such as apples and pears, generally do not facilitate significant honey production for bees. One crop, almonds, is in a class by itself. During pollination, almond growers pack so many bees into the almond orchards that the bees do not produce honey – and actually have to be fed (typically a sugar solution) by the beekeepers.

In 1990, real pollination fees (in 2009 dollars) for honey crops were just under 20 dollars, while non-honey crop fees were 40 dollars. By 2009, fees for honey crops had risen to approximately 35 dollars, while non-honey crops were about 70 dollars. The fees for almonds saw a significantly larger increase. While almond pollination fees were approximately 50 dollars in 1993, they had risen to around 150 dollars by 2009.

The researchers found that – perhaps unsurprisingly – beekeepers charge lower pollination fees for honey crops because the bees will also produce honey that can then be sold. Less obvious is the connection between pollination fees and the price of honey.  The researchers also found that when the price of honey goes up, pollination fees also go up. This is because beekeepers are more likely to focus on geographic areas and crops that are conducive to honey production – rather than traveling to areas that need crop pollination – if they can make more money selling honey.

Another factor responsible for the rise in pollination rates is the arrival and spread of the Varroa mite in the U.S. Varroa are non-native parasites that can devastate a bee colony, and were first found in the U.S. in the late 1980s. They have since spread across the continental U.S., and the cost of controlling Varroa mites has driven up pollination fees by approximately $6.

Pollination fees for almonds are in a class of their own. This is because early each February, approximately two-thirds of the commercial pollinators in the country converge on almond orchards in southern California. After pollinating almonds, these beekeepers and their charges return to their home areas – some as far away as North Carolina. As a result, transport costs affect pollination fees for almonds – and those transport costs are affected by the cost of diesel fuel. The higher the cost of diesel, the more beekeepers will charge to pollinate almonds.

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  1. One figure I’ve seen from USDA (citation link below) estimates that 75 percent of food crops grown worldwide are dependent on animal pollination. What that percentage is in the U.S., and what percentage of that pollination is done by bees, I don’t know.

    The same source says that direct and indirect agricultural economic benefits of insect pollination were approximately $40 billion in the U.S. in 2000.


    Some additional information available here: