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Migratory Beekeeping

Peter Nelson

Twenty-five hundred miles away in California right now, a million acres of almond trees are blooming. And migratory honeybee keepers from all over the country—including those from eastern Massachusetts—are there with their hives, paid to show up and pollinate. When documentary film producer Peter Nelson first learned this, he was fascinated.

“Most people don’t know that they move bees, right. Many people don’t know that that happens. And many, many, many more don’t realize how important it is to our food system and the food we eat every day.”

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Peter Nelson

Nelson keeps bees in his backyard in Hudson, New York. So he knows first hand some of the challenges honeybees are facing. What is it like, he wondered, to try and take care of your beehives when you’re loading them onto semi-trailers and driving them all over the United States, from crop to crop?

He got interested and met up with commercial migratory beekeepers as they moved bees around the country. The season for pollination services as migratory beekeepers starts for most of them in almonds in February. And from there, they’re about 5-6 weeks in almonds, and then they move out because they have to have another place to take the bees, because there’s no habitat or forage for them in the almonds. So they have to move them somewhere else.

Nelson explained that they move them out to other crops, “so they would do citrus and cherries and apples up the west coast a bunch of them come back east and start down south in Georgia and the Carolinas and do blueberries and fruit trees and move up the east coast and through the midwest and do this pollination. And there are about 400 crops that are either dependent or really, really important to be pollinated by honeybees.”

Locally, one of these crops is cranberries. Depending on the weather they bloom from June into July and cranberries can’t self pollinate—they depend on pollinators to move pollen from one flower to another to set fruit. In some bogs native bees like bumble bees do this work—they’re actually more efficient at it. But some commercial cranberry growers bring in migratory honeybees.

“As the farms have gotten bigger and more simplified, meaning monocultures of single crops grown in one field over a year and more chemically dependent, a lot of the native bees have not been able to make it. Because if there’s only one thing for them to eat they can’t survive throughout a year. And so farmers, orchard growers bring in bees, it’s almost like an insurance policy to ensure that pollination or they don’t have a crop.”

Using migratory honeybees is becoming more common in part because native pollinators are struggling—historically Massachusetts had 11 species of native bumble bees, which is now down to 7, and all but one of these seven species are in decline. Of course, honeybees face many of the same challenges. Today, because of losses in hives, it takes nearly every migratory beehive in the country to pollinate the biggest crops like almonds.

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Peter Nelson

“And they bring in 2 million beehives, more than 2 million beehives to pollinate those almonds. And because they move these bees in and out of the orchards or fields or whatever at night, a lot of people don’t know that it happens. And they’re put on trucks with a net over them.”

It’s a huge amount of work. The migratory beekeepers Peter met work during the night trucking bees or moving them into position to pollinate. Then they sleep a bit during the day and start over, fixing equipment and taking care of the bees.

“And what was kind of an interesting take away for me was how much they really care about their bees. The USDA considers honeybees livestock in that perspective but these beekeepers their livelihood depends upon them and so they really take care of them as best they can.”

Peter Nelson ended up producing a documentary about the migratory beekeepers he followed called The Pollinators. I watched it, and while I knew some farmers brought in bees to help with pollination, I didn’t know how widespread or important migratory beekeeping is. I had no idea for instance, that crops that many of us think of as “wild” like Maine blueberries are actually heavily managed and pollinated with migratory bees. One of the beekeeping operations featured is in eastern Massachusetts, just north of Boston—a local farm taking part in a seasonal dance many of us never know about or see.


Learn more about migratory beekeeping in Elspeth's blog post about the topic.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.