Migratory Beekeeping – What is it Exactly?

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What comes into your mind when someone talks about beekeeping? A common guess would be honeybees raised in a beehive far away in the country side. Well, that is not far from the truth. Beekeeping has certainly come a long way since back in the ages when simple hive designs were used to raise bees.

Presently, honeybees are kept almost anywhere, including cities, where sophisticated hives are kept on the rooftop, the balcony or inside apartments. Beekeepers play an important role in supplying honeybee products such as honey, pollen, wax, royal jelly, propolis, and many others.

Pollination service is a specialty of beekeepers and this is common in most parts of the world, including the USA. This has led to what is referred to as migratory beekeeping, a practice that helps large-scale agricultural farms to optimize their productivity by contracting pollination services from beekeepers. More than 1 million beehives are transported annually to farms within the US to help pollinate various crops. Join us as we explore and get to know more about migratory beekeeping.

What is Migratory Beekeeping?

Migratory beekeeping can be defined in many ways. One definition describes it as the movement of honey bee colonies from one area to another during a specific season. Another defines it as raising honeybees with an aim of moving to various honey flows or locations to pollinate crops. In another definition, it simply refers to beekeepers that traverse the country with their beehives as they pollinate crops.

The most common types of beekeeping that almost everyone is familiar with, is hobby and commercial beekeeping. Hobbyists are individuals with a few beehives and with an aim of doing it for fun, while in the process make a small profit. Hobby beekeeping may also be referred to as urban or backyard beekeeping. Commercial beekeepers on the other end are ideally beekeepers with plenty of beehives and with a focus on raking in huge profits from the business.

Migratory beekeeping is not so familiar with most people, even though most will confess having seen beekeepers traveling to various locations with their many beehives. They mainly set camp in various vegetable and fruit farms during particular seasons before disappearing, only to be seen months later. The main aim of the migratory beekeeper is to pollinate crops, and not necessarily produce honey for sale.

Migratory beekeeping is vital for the optimal production of most vegetables and fruits. These plants rely solely on migratory beekeeping for their survival. Unlike stationary beekeeping where honeybee products are the primary target, with migratory those products are secondary, even though some of the migratory beekeepers will still keep a few stationary hives.

In terms of geographical location, most migratory beekeepers usually stick to certain regions, in most cases two regions or two to three states. The hives will be moved between these regions which should have similar climatic conditions, especially temperatures. This helps eliminate stress on the honeybees due changes in locations. Additionally, expert migratory beekeepers will never stick to a single geographic area but tend to continuously move hives across countries or borders. The changes in growing cycle and honey flow guide their movements.

How does Migratory Beekeeping Work?

How to Build a Langstroth Beehive

Migratory beekeepers move hundreds or thousands of hives across various locations every season. This is never an easy task, especially when you are dealing with honeybees. One may wonder how this is even possible to begin with. That is a good question and we shall answer it. The main secret to the entire practice is on the use of pallets. These beehives are kept on pallets throughout the period, with one pallet holding a maximum of four hives. This is what is referred to as four-ways.

In addition to the pallets, is the giant flatbed truck where these pallets are placed. The huge trucks have the capacity of holding literally hundreds of honeybee colonies at once. These hives and pallets are snugly fitted to the truck and then ferried to their destination. The hives are usually loaded into these trucks using forklifts. However, honey bees are induced to be docile by overfeeding with honey before the trip. Specialized bee tarps are also used to secure the honey bees in place, allow sufficient ventilation and prevent airborne debris from getting into the colony.

Since many hives packed tightly together, transporters are usually on the move during the day. This helps cool the honey bees as a result of air flow. Remember honey bees generate a lot of heat when clustered together hence the need to keep them cool. Furthermore, water systems with sprays have also been fitted into these trucks allowing the beekeeper to cool the hives during hot trips. Nothing is left to chance and drivers will keep checking the hives from time to time during the trip. This will help guarantee the safety of the honey bees. Upon reaching the destination the forklifts will be used to unload the beehives. The bees will then be allowed to rest for a few weeks before they can begin pollination. This can explain why migratory beekeepers arrive a week or more before they begin pollination.

The honey flow and regional growing cycles will guide the migratory beekeepers on where to go. Some may decide to move around close locations while other beekeepers will cross the border a number of times in the year.

The honey flow season is the ideal time for migratory beekeepers, since this is when pollen and nectar are in excessive supply. This is the peak season when honey bees will be out foraging. The blooming flowers bring about the honey flow hence migratory beekeepers continuously monitor growing cycles in various regions. Ideally, spring and summer are the peak seasons when you will experience honey flow.

In the US, migratory beekeepers will typically move to California during the month of February when almond trees are ready for pollination. More than 80 billion bees will gathered at the Central Valley during this time to pollinate trillions of almond tree flowers that will later feed the globe. Once this is completed, the beekeepers will relocate to nearby orchards where they pollinate fruits such as plums, cherries, and avocados. They can then proceed to Washington where pollination services are required by the apple orchards.

Summer months are crucial for migratory beekeepers. North and South Dakota will be in a serious need for pollination services. Alfalfa and sunflower fields are pollinated during this time. The orange and tangerine orchards in the Florida, in addition to blueberry orchards in Maine area will also require pollination services. Cranberries squash, and pumpkins will also require migratory beekeepers.

Finally, during winter, the bees will move back to warmer states such as California and Florida where they can rest before the entire cycle of movement begins once again.

Cost Implications of Migratory Beekeeping

Unlike stationary beekeeping, this type of beekeeping has its unique requirements as explained below:

  • The experience level is completely different. Amateurs or beginners are not favored by migratory beekeeping. With this arrangement, starting small is never possible. You simply can’t begin the practice with one or two hives as you would if you wanted to begin stationary beekeeping. You can’t also do this as a hobby where you can have a few hives and enjoy honey bee products for personal use. Migratory beekeeping requires an investment in an industrial scale. The beekeeper should have enough hives to occupy an entire truck, ideally between 5000 to 10000 beehives.
  • Migratory beekeeping requires serious resources, work, knowledge, experience, and time. There are often hundreds or even thousands of hives that need to be moved across different locations or regions for pollination services. Transportation cost is quite high for migratory beekeepers, taking up a huge part of their income. Owning and operating your own truck with all accompanying equipment does not come cheap. The beekeeper must invest heavily in the business. The truck also comes with its share of expenses that include insurance, maintenance, tires, licensing, fuel, and many others. If you choose to hire a truck, then you should be prepared to pay substantial amount of cash to the truck driver. It is also important to note that not everyone will be willing to transport bees from one region to another. Only experienced drivers can do the job.
  • Prior arrangements are made before pollination season begins. The beekeepers will arrive in the area some weeks before flowers begin to emerge. They will then setup camp after which the honey bees will begin to pollinate many flowers within the area. Once the season is over, the beehives are moved to another location. Regions with temperate climates do not provide sufficient time to the beekeepers to move all year round. In these areas, spring will last for a few months hence they cannot have plenty of time to move to other areas. Fortunately for US migratory beekeepers, things are so much easier since there are so many places to visit. The beekeepers are always on the move throughout the year.

Crops that Rely on Migratory Beekeeping

Migratory Beekeeping - Almond Flower Blossom

Some of the vegetables and fruits that rely on migratory beekeeping include:

  • Lettuce
  • Apples
  • Peppers
  • Almonds
  • Pumpkins
  • Plums
  • Blueberries
  • Cucumbers
  • Cherries
  • Watermelon
  • Alfalfa
  • Cantaloupe
  • Clovers
  • Cranberries
  • Sunflowers

 

Benefits of Migratory Beekeeping

The benefits associated with migratory beekeeping can never be ignored. These include:

1. Abundant Forage

Unlike stationary beekeeping where honeybees are restricted to one area for their entire life, migratory bees enjoy abundant forage. The honeybees are always on the move to honey flow areas therefore honey and nectar is always in abundant supply. Additionally, there is the advantage of foraging on different types of flowers in different locations thus ensuring the honey bees enjoy a balanced nutrition.

2. Needed Pollination

Migratory beekeeping makes it possible for orchard and plantation owners to enjoy the much needed pollination. Without this, crops would not produce at their optimal level. Wild pollinators are scarce in most regions especially, within the US, hence the need to seek this service from domesticated honeybees. The number of migratory beekeepers has been on the rise given the demand for this service. This then means that the entire population relies heavily on pollination services.

3. Bees Feed the Nation

Pollination is important for the survival of the planet. Honey bees that provide pollination services are not only benefiting the beekeepers but also feeding the globe. For instance, 80% of the almonds produced globally come from Central Valley, California. This is the region where the demand for pollination services is at the highest globally. This then means the honeybees are not only feeding the beekeepers but also the entire world.

Some beekeepers that rely on migratory beekeeping are also raking in huge profits instead of only relying on stationary beekeeping. This has helped them supplement their income and enjoy more profits.

4. More Productivity

Migratory beekeeping makes it possible to achieve the best productivity in crops such as apples, almonds, berries, pumpkins, avocados, and many others.  If farmers were to rely on wild pollinators, this would never be possible. These crops require sufficient pollinators to thrive and this is only possible through the use of migratory pollinators.

5. Increased Honey Yield

Asides earning some profits to the beekeeper, migratory beekeeping makes it possible for the beekeepers to enjoy more honey yields. The honey colonies are transported to different regions with honey flows throughout the year unlike for stationary beekeeping where they stay in one place and rely in a single honey flow within an area. This allows the beekeeper to enjoy a continuous supply of honey even when other beekeepers are awaiting peak honey seasons.

The migratory beekeeper makes perfect use of weather and crop cycles thus granting them more privileges. For instance, successful migratory beekeepers, on average, harvest honey four to five times a year. Contrastingly, it is almost impossible for the stationary beekeeper to get more than two harvests within a year.

6. Time to Explore as You do What You Love

Migratory beekeeping may require experience, time, and lots of work. However, it is so much fulfilling when you think about it. You can imagine how exciting to traverse the regions all year round with your bees. The experience is simply out of this world. The sight of huge plantations with your bees moving from one flower to the other is highly fulfilling. Additionally, you get some satisfaction knowing you are playing an important role of feeding the nation.

Downsides to Migratory Beekeeping

Any new practice is usually treated with skepticism and migratory beekeeping has received accolades and criticisms in equal measure. If you ask if it is safe or not, then a straight answer would be, I will let you decide. Some of the reasons most people have welcomed the idea with some doubts include:

1. Changes in Natural Bee Cycle

Migratory beekeeping completely disrupts or rather alters the normal operation of honeybee colonies. The life cycle of honeybees that usually occurs during late winter and is completed by late fall is disrupted. Honeybees are accustomed to the changes that naturally occur as seasons come and go. The colony has grown used to this and will pollinate, raise brood, and accumulate honey in preparation for seasons of dearth.

The movement of honeybee colonies across regions during summer and winter for pollination confuses the honey bees. There are summer and winter crops, all of which rely heavily on pollinators. Therefore, the various changes that honeybees experienced during this movement alter their growth cycle.

2. Health and Stress

Migratory beekeeping subjects honeybees to changes in climate, hours of daylight, temperature, floral types, and humidity. These changes will send mixed signals to the honey bees hence will no longer operate as they do in their usual environment. The rapid changes will ultimately lead to stress in honeybees and impact their overall health. This strain of bees will end up being less resistant to pests and diseases. All these are done for the benefit of the crop producers who may not care any less for the honeybees.

If it is also worth mentioning that migratory beekeeping has led to many different bees being brought to one location. Since these bees freely meet during foraging, it almost becomes impossible to prevent pests and diseases that are exchanged in the process of interacting. This leads to a rapid spread of diseases that wipe out honey bee colonies every year.

3. Monoculture

Migratory beekeeping targets areas where the practice of monoculture is a norm. You will find migratory beekeepers in areas where single crops are planted in a large scale within an area. For instance, almonds that cover huge tracks of land rely on migratory beekeeping. Unfortunately, monoculture is regarded as the number one killer of honeybees since most of these farms use harmful chemicals in controlling weeds and pests. This directly affects the honey bees during flowering seasons. These chemicals will also be passed over to the final product rendering the honey they produce inferior in terms of quality.

A lack of sufficient nutrients for honey bees is another big problem associated with monoculture. Honey bees require a wide variety of nutrients to survive and thrive. In a natural or feral setting, bees will visit thousands of flowers within a day. This diversity is what makes wild bees do much better without man’s intervention.

Unfortunately, monoculture can be likened to a man who eats the same meal throughout the year, or for a whole season. It therefore deprives the honey bees of their required balance of nutrients hence impacts negatively their immunity and health. Furthermore, there is a huge competition among the millions of honey bees that are moved to these fields during the flowering seasons.

4. Movement

Have you ever experienced the stress of being on the road the entire day and night? What if you have to spend the rest of your life on the road travelling day and night? Well, you will agree that will be a miserable life. Migratory beekeeping involves travelling long distances within a short span of time. What this means is that migratory beekeepers will be travelling long distances, day and night. This then has a serious toll on the honeybee colonies.

The thousands of honeybees packed on the back of the truck will spend days traversing the national roads, be it cold or too hot. They are also subjected to poor ventilation and lack of sufficient water. All these affect the honeybees making them stressed, anxious, agitated, or even aggressive.

Upon arrival at the destination, the honeybees begin their pollination work, without resting. This in most cases escalates their stress levels leading to exhaustion and in some instances death. As you may know, honeybees dislike noise, hence the need to place beehives in a quiet location. What then happens when you carry bees along a busy highway, day in and day out? Well, plenty of noise on the way and ultimately plenty of stress eventually are the results.

A Final Word

Migratory beekeeping is the practice of raising honeybees with an intention of moving them to multiple locations to pollinate crops. Literally hundreds and thousands of honeybees are loaded in giant trucks and ferried across states and borders every year to pollinate crop fields. This practice has its share of benefits and downsides. However, if honeybees are provided with a variety of flowers including wild ones then that can help foster their health.

Sufficient time for rest should also be provided during periods of day and night travel. This will help minimize stress on the honeybees. More so, use of chemicals in crop fields should be minimized and organic farming methods adopted so as to safeguard the wellbeing of the honeybees.

In terms of varying climate conditions, the migratory honeybees should be moved to areas that share similar climatic conditions for them to fit in easily and eliminate stress, anxiety, and exhaustion.

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RAY HUNT
RAY HUNT
7 days ago

Really liked the article. In the section on How does Migratory Beekeeping Work?, there is a really nice image of a bee on a flower, but it is definitely NOT a honey bee. Call me a purist, but many “newbies” will not know the difference. Just an FYI…

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