If you want to grow and sell fruits, nuts, or vegetables, you need arable soil, sun, seeds, water, equipment, and elbow grease. Your bounty will only reach store shelves via channel partners like natural and organic wholesalers and retailers, hospitality and foodservice brokers, even that roadside stand outside your farm. But wait – what one vital element, if missing, can send your entrepreneurial endeavor crashing to its knees?
Honeybees. Millions and millions of industrious worker bees keep our agricultural and horticultural markets humming. Without them, there is no harvest, there is no bounty.
Bees make plenty of honey, this we know. The U.S. market for honey food products stands at about $160 million now – that’s a lot of sticky squeeze bear bottles. But those sales numbers pale in comparison to the vital role they and their keepers play in commercial agriculture. Bees pollinate a third of our nation’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables. On the wings of these insects rests the well being of an agricultural industry worth $15 billion. And that’s a lot of buzz.
What happens if the bees don’t happen to be swarming when and where they’re needed? What if, with commercial farms often in excess of 10,000 acres producing our crops, there aren’t enough bees to go around? Enter commercial beekeepers.
All year, these unlikely road warriors take their show on the road, toting hives between coasts, where bees find the most abundant sources of nectar while getting down to pollinating. The flight of the bee is helped along by the interstate highway system, as some beekeepers log up to 60,000 miles a year, their bees all the while producing honey and wax.
• One pumpkin grower’s crop is sold by Wal-Mart each Halloween. It all starts with 30 bee visits to a single flower, followed by pollination of 300 acres of future jack o’ lanterns
• And one million bee colonies are needed just to start the annual almond crop across California
• Those numbers add up, exponentially, across the nation and across all growing seasons.
Keepers rent their bee colonies to growers of almonds in California, cantaloupes in Florida, and blueberries in Maine. Humble worker bees – each of which produces about one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its short lifespan – and their dedicated keepers are, thus, one of the most interesting and vital, yet overlooked, sub-segments of the food industry.
Sure their sting hurts and yes, you step on them when you see them on the sidewalk, but next time you see a honeybee, remember that were it not for these furry flyers, your fruits and vegetables would cease to bee.