Where are all the bees?

Michigan fruit trees blooming a month early means that bees need to be here a month early, too. There are several issues affecting the movement of bees quickly into Michigan.

Fruit growers are struggling to keep up with the rapid growth we have seen in March. Fruit trees in southern Michigan began blooming this week and growers were scrambling to get bees to pollinate their orchards and are frustrated that, despite their efforts, their bees are not here. Most of the bees that pollinate Michigan fruit crops either overwintered in Florida or just finished pollinating almonds in California. I recently spoke with Michael Hansen, state apiarist for the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and he shared these problems that beekeepers had reported to him.

Apples in bloom
Apples are beginning to bloom at the Southwest Michigan Research and Extension Center.

One problem is trucking. Most of the truckers that haul bees are booked. You have to be equipped to haul bees, netting is required and a beekeeper needs to work with a skilled and reliable firm. It is no help at all if a trucker stops during the day and roasts your bees. Nor is it helpful if an inexperienced trucker loses a load of bees worth thousands of dollars.

Bees are just now being released from Florida. Florida has strict regulations concerning the movement of bees in and out of the state. Beekeepers need to have their hives inspected and released by Florida inspectors if they want to return to Florida next fall and winter.

Florida houses 450,000 or more colonies in the winter, and most are leaving now. Bees coming back from Florida were probably split and requeened this winter. Beekeepers time this activity to have the bees ready and built up on time. When the date of return changes drastically, you simply cannot push a new queen to comply. Moving bees before the new queen is well established is very hard on the colony. These colonies were scheduled to be in peak condition for a normal year – mid- to late April. When the hives were manipulated this winter, there was no way to predict this early of a spring.

Bees that are returning from California are stronger than their sisters in Florida because those colonies had been built up for almonds. Trucking is the major issue for the movement of bees from California to the eastern states.

Not all of Michigan’s bees go to California or Florida for the winter. Michigan beekeepers also overwinter hives here in Michigan. Hansen shared some information about overwintering hives. He said because of the early spring, the flow of maple nectar has been tremendous and some northern Michigan beekeepers had to remove maple honey from their colonies to make room for brood. Another commercial beekeeper who overwinters bees in Michigan reported that the mild winter meant that their bees are strong and they are set to meet their pollination contracts without the bees that they sent south. Not only that, but they ordered packages and queens to be ready for their normal bee losses and, if they can locate the equipment, they will have 50 percent more colonies than normal this summer. They have already had to destroy swarms, and the bees are making white wax which indicates that they are finding plenty of pollen. The mild winter was definitely been a boon to beekeepers in Michigan.

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