Each February, as America’s honeybees begin stirring from a long, lethargic winter, commercial beekeepers from around the country truck their hives into California’s Central Valley to feast on the flowers of nearly 1 million acres of almond trees. As John Miller, a fourth-generation beekeeper, put it to me, “Two-thirds of the national herd migrates for one specific task, almost invisibly.”
The almond tree is an early bloomer, bursting with gorgeous pink and white blossoms long before the celestial arrival of spring. Because most almond varieties are not self-pollinating, they require the assistance of an industrious, albeit temporary, hired hand. Enter the very busy honeybee. To ensure sufficient fertilization, the almond orchards need about two hives per acre for a total of a heck of a lot of bees—between 1.5 and 2 million colonies. California’s crop generates an impressive 80 percent of the world’s almond supply, and according to the Almond Board of California, “The single most important factor determining a good yield is pollination during the bloom period.”
Almond growers pay as much as $220 per colony, critical cash flow for a beekeeper during the first half of the year. For several months before the almond bloom, honeybees are effectively dormant, huddled in what are called “winter clusters,” endeavoring to keep the queen warm while feeding on honey left over from the previous year. When they finally emerge amid the almond trees, the bees are lean, fewer in number, and eager to work.
“A colony in the spring, when it’s in build-up mode, might consume a pound of carbohydrate calories a day,” says Miller, who starts off the year with about 10,000 hives (hive and colony are used interchangeably by beekeepers). Carbs come in the form of either nectar or, barring a natural source, sucrose syrup provided by the beekeeper. A hive also ingests as much as a pound of protein-rich pollen every week.
Whatever honey is produced goes back into the hive, all of it sustenance to help repopulate a colony that has thinned out, sometimes considerably, over the fall and winter. By mid-March, however, the Great Almond Extravaganza is over and millions of colonies need something else to eat. Miller hauls his hives into Northern California to feed on pit fruit trees—peaches, plums, apricots, cherries, and nectarines—and into Washington for the apples. With so many bees now in search of food, all gathered on the West Coast, market forces push the price growers pay per hive down to about $30. And once again, no surplus honey is generated. The colonies, as diligent as they are, are still in build-up mode.
Come July 1, you'll find Miller in Logan County, North Dakota, by far the largest honey-producing state in the country. His herd has now grown to 15,000 colonies, which he sets down across 250 locations.He visits each landowner once a year to pay “yard rent,” traditionally a generous quantity of honey or, if that's not how they take their tea, a $100 bill.
The USDA provides incentives for farmers in North Dakota and elsewhere to cultivate their unused or marginal land, soil that is too poor quality—too arid or too erodible, say—to otherwise yield a profit. The goal is to reduce erosion, improve water quality, and provide wildlife habitat. Simply put, the government “rents” about 25 million acres of land, under 10- or 15-year contracts at market prices, in exchange for the landowners’ commitment to enrich it. Sweet clover, it turns out, is just right for the job.
Sweet clover is drought tolerant, cold tolerant, and better still, nitrogen-fixing, meaning the plants don’t need fertilizer but instead take nitrogen from the air and disperse it, eventually, into the soil. Also, sweet clover is a biennial that reseeds itself. Plant it one year then plant it the next and, in theory anyway, you’re done.
Oh, and bees love it. So the farmer gets some money from Uncle Sam, the bees get the clover nectar, and the beekeeper gets the honey. “It’s a win, win, win,” says Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture magazine. “The farmer wins. The beekeeper wins. And the bees win, because there are no pesticides out there.”
Miller, like many keepers, is drawn to this land because it’s fallow and it’s prairie, which is pretty much honeybee paradise when you throw in the sweet clover. As Emily Dickinson observed:
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,—
One clover, and a bee,
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.
It’s a prescient bit of verse, since bees are indeed fewer and fewer these days. “Honey production in North America has gone through almost a cathartic collapse,” says Miller. “Hives aren’t as strong and as vigorous as they once were, there’s a lot less to eat, and we need a breakthrough on Miss Varroa and her children.” What Miller is talking about is sometimes referred to as the three P’s: fatal parasite infestation—from a mite called Varroa destructor—dwindling pastureland, and overuse of pesticides.
Miller sums up the pastureland and pesticide problems like this: “Too much corn and too much soybeans means not enough forage for bees. A corn and a soybean field is now farmed so intensively that nothing grows inside that crop, besides the corn or the soybean. There’s no weeds, there’s no mustard, there’s no volunteer stuff in there. It’s all been sprayed.” The term volunteer refers to anything not planted by the farmer. “I’m driving past a soybean field right now,” Miller told me, during a conversation from the road, “and there is no other vegetative green in that field besides soybeans. It's a desert. If you’re a honeybee, you fly right over it.” As for parasites, Varroa destructor, first detected in the United States in the mid-1980s, has devastated America’s bee population and, by extension, its honey production.
“In the old days,” says Miller, “we would produce 120 pounds of surplus honey per colony, and the new normal is about 40.”
More than three-quarters of his yield, Miller estimates, is clover honey. He sells his entire crop to Dutch Gold Honey (“Home of the original honey bear!”), which employs packers, the sommeliers of the industry, who refine their palates over many years and across various regions. A good packer can tell the difference, Flottum says, between clover honey from North Dakota and that from Wisconsin, another top-10 honey-producing state with ample land. The honey may come from the same sweet clover plants, Melilotus officinalis and Melilotus albus, but the different terroir—soil and climate conditions—produces fluctuations in flavor, which, when it comes to mass-market food-buying habits, is undesirable. Packers blend various honeys so that, according to Flottum, “The clover you bought last time tastes just like the clover you bought this time and the clover you buy next time.”
Clover honey, most packers agree, is dependably tasty with broad appeal, but relatively pedestrian in contrast to the darker, more robust honeys such as gallberry, Chinese tallow, or spotted knapweed. Flottum, co-author of The Honey Connoisseur, says these varieties have a strong, lingering aftertaste and more complex notes. But, as Miller puts it, “The customer has said, we want a lighter, milder honey, and that’s what the packers try to achieve. Hence the demand for the Great Plains—Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Montana, the Dakotas, and Minnesota—those light, mild honeys that occur up here.” Much of which is clover honey.
Miller stays in North Dakota until about the middle of October, when he loads his herd onto tractor-trailers and ships them off to a climate-controlled cellar in southeast Idaho, where they wait out the winter at a cool 41 degrees. “It’s very efficient for the hive,” he says. “They don’t consume many calories at that temperature, and it’s safer than being outdoors. No bears, no thieves, no kids with dad’s four-wheel drive, a six-pack, and a shotgun.”
The more ominous threat, of course, is from those pernicious P’s. The National Agricultural Statistics Service keeps rough honey-production numbers stretching back several decades. Over the course of the 1990s, the United States averaged 210 million pounds of honey each year. During the aughts, that number fell to 172 million pounds. So far this decade, we’re down to 155 million. At the same time, demand for honey has never been higher, which explains record prices over the past year. Let’s hope that our days in clover aren’t coming to an end.