Department of Agriculture Aims to Help Beekeepers
To some people, bees may represent a nuisance to be avoided in the yard and garden.
But to fruit and vegetable farmers, bees are as important as the soil the plants grow in.
Bees pollinate the majority of North Carolinaâ€™s fruit and vegetable crops, which results in the plants fruiting and producing seeds.
To help farmers looking for bee pollination services connect with beekeepers interested in providing those services, the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, in cooperation with N.C. State University Apiculture Program, has created BeeLinked, a Web site designed to link pollinators with growers. The Web site is www.ncagr.com/beelinked
Beekeepers may complete and submit a form online with information on their services, or if they do not have Internet access, they can call the department at (800) 206-9333 to submit that information.
Farmers interested in renting bees for pollination may go online at the site and review listings from beekeepers that are offering services. The listings may be searched by county or region, and by the type of service provided.
A sample contract that can serve as a guide is also available on the site, but growers and beekeepers should work out the details between themselves about pollination services.
Many growers contract with beekeepers to ensure their crops are pollinated and bear fruit. Pollinators bring their hives to fields for a specified period of time, allowing the bees to move between plants and the hives. At the end of the contract period, the beekeeper rounds up his bees and removes the hives from the fields.
The balance between the needs of growers and the availability of bees is extremely delicate, particularly as the numbers of bees in the wild have decreased and interest in beekeeping as a hobby has waned.
â€œMany people donâ€™t realize what an important role bees play in our food production,â€ said Don Hopkins, state apiarist with the agriculture department. â€œBeekeeping is more appreciated now by farmers than it used to be because there were more feral or wild colonies in the past that assisted in the pollination process. Plus, there are more honey bee-dependent acres being grown today as some farmers have diversified and transitioned out of tobacco.â€
About a third of the food Americans eat is the direct result of pollination by honey bees, which accounts for nearly $15 billion a year in production.
Jack Tapp, an Orange County beekeeper who manages around 2,000 hives, sees the supply and demand issue as a concerning trend and a potential crisis in the making.
In the spring of 2004, Tapp, who is one of the stateâ€™s 13 commercial pollinators, started receiving more calls than normal for pollination services. He called other commercial pollinators he knew to see if they would be able to provide service to the farmers who contacted him, and discovered that many had all the business they could handle and were not able to take on new customers.
â€œIn calling around I found there was a big demand for bees that had not been there before,â€ Tapp said. â€œEverybody in the country is suffering the same plight right now. The number of bees is down, the acres of crops are up and the price of honey is up.â€
This is the time of year when farmers are lining up pollination services for the growing season, and Hopkins expects the new Web site will be a good resource for farmers. Still, demand is likely to be high again this year.
â€œAs far as the honey bee colonies in the state and with the amount of bee losses we are likely to have over the winter, weâ€™ll be hard pressed to supply all the growers,â€ Hopkins said.
Itâ€™s a sentiment Tapp shares. Tapp has already contracted 750 hives for the 2005 growing season.
â€œWe are trying to expand as fast as possible to meet the demands this year,â€ Tapp said. â€œIt takes some time to respond to a shortage.â€
Tapp is working to add another 300-plus hives to his operation to accommodate mid-season crops such as cucumbers and watermelons.
Hopkins, Tapp and others in the beekeeping community hope to interest more young people in beekeeping even if just as a hobby. With an ever-aging population of beekeepers, both men wonder what the future holds for this niche agribusiness industry.
Tapp, who is twice retired, works 16-hour days with his business and employs two people full time.
He admits it is hard work especially during some of the hottest times of the year. And it is not the easiest business to get into because of high start-up costs.
But for someone who enjoys working with and caring for bees, it is an enjoyable business, Tapp said.