Honeybees on Meadowfoam

On Mother’s Day, we took a little family beekeeping excursion out to check on Henry’s hives that he had dropped off in the heart of the Willamette Valley about a week earlier.

Seed farmer, Cody Younger (one of Henry’s friends from college who I wrote about last summer in this post), contracted Henry’s bees to pollinate one of his family’s meadowfoam fields. This arrangement with Cody is Henry’s only pollination contract this year. It’s sort of a test run to see if he wants to pursue more contracts in the future or if he’d rather build hives up in more rural areas.

Meadowfoam is a low, almost succulent-like plant native to Oregon and California that naturally grows in vernal pools. Nearly all commercially produced meadowfoam seed is grown in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

In it’s natural habitat, there are plenty of bees around to pollinate small patches of meadowfoam, but when it’s grown commercially, farmers need to bring in 1-2 hives per acre to get the flowers pollinated and ensure a good yield of seed. This particular field was only 16 acres, but there were other meadowfoam fields nearby that covered over 100 acres.

For the Younger family, meadowfoam is one of the most consistently lucrative crops in their rotation. Meadowfoam needs significantly less fertilizer than grass seed, so the biggest expenses involved in meadowfoam production are land rent and pollination fees. They can also grow it using a no-till method which preserves soil integrity.

The Youngers are contracted to grow meadowfoam for Technology Crops based in North Carolina. After they harvest the seed in early summer, they will ship it to Prince Edward Island where it will be pressed into oil. According to Cody, Technology Crops has developed a special method for filtering meadowfoam oil with various clays (instead of nasty chemicals) so that the end result is an oderless, colorless liquid that is used in cosmetics.

Henry’s objective for the afternoon was simply to open each hive and check out the activity, making sure the hive’s new queen was actively laying eggs.

In all of Henry’s hives, he’s added a four-inch-tall spacer below the bottom brood box. This allows the bees to use that cavity to build drone comb instead of making unwanted burr comb (comb that doesn’t line up with foundation or is built between frames) to rear drones. Drones have a longer capped brood period, so they tend to raise more varroa mites than worker brood. Ideally, Henry will cut out this drone comb before the brood emerge and destroy it (melt it or feed it to chickens) along with any mites.

Henry got the idea for the extra spacer by observing feral colonies that often contain dead air space below the main comb. Olympic Wilderness Apiary uses a similar system.

In this photo, the large, dark queen is located right in the middle. This is one case where the queen is particularly easy to spot. Usually queens look a lot more like the workers. (It is almost impossible for me to spot the queen among a bunch of workers, but that’s why I’m no bee guru.)

Because monocropped fields are so large (and often surrounded by wind-pollinated grass fields), it is unlikely the native pollinators in the area can adequately cover commercial crops. The only way to get crops like meadowfoam, clover, and turnips pollinated is to bring in hives. Farmers have to weigh the costs and benefits of bringing in bees, not so much whether or not to do it but how many and when. If they save money by contracting fewer hives, they may not get a good enough pollination to bring on a bountiful harvest. Some beekeepers will pollinate at a cheaper rate, but they may not have strong colonies, so the fields won’t be pollinated as fully. (Usually, farmers get what they pay for.)

Many commercial beekeepers in North America truck their hives to California in January and February each year to pollinate the Californian almond crop. The lump sum earned from those pollination contracts is often a majority of a beekeeper’s income for the year. Other pollination contracts, honey sales, and live bee sales account for most of the rest of the money brought in by beekeepers. This additional revenue will likely only cover beekeeping operation expenses.

Though the going rate for local pollination contracts varies (and is significantly less than almonds), many beekeepers choose to work with farmers, hauling hives in and out of fields (hopefully) when the timing is just right. Farmers get their crops pollinated, which is necessary for seed production (other than grasses), beekeepers earn an income, and the bees collect all the nectar and pollen they can carry.

There are significant drawbacks to this arrangement for both beekeepers and the bees themselves. Beekeepers must invest in the infrastructure  to move large quantities of hives including flatbed trucks, palletized boxes, and a tractor or forklift for moving bees. They must move the bees in accordance with bloom cycles, which isn’t necessarily convenient or lined up with certain calendar days.

When hives are dropped off in the middle of single-species blooms, there is more than enough for them to eat, but they don’t get any variety in their diet. Lack of diversity of pollen and nectar can negatively affect the health of colonies or stunt them somewhat compared to hives allowed to forage in the forest or rural areas away from large, single-crop fields. At our place, for example, there are probably a dozen or more plants blooming right now that are significant nectar or pollen sources such as madrone, vine maple, trailing blackberry, poison oak, thimbleberry, and chittum. Our hives at home can select nectar and pollen from whichever plants are most palatable and/or nutritional at the moment. For most beekeepers, bees are their equity, so keeping them healthy is a priority, and each beekeeper must decide how many and which pollination contracts to fulfill. If he or she decides to take on a clover contract for $45/hive, those hives may not be healthy enough to be used for almond pollination later, and the beekeeper may lose money in the long run for a short-term gain. A beekeeper may also lose the opportunity to build the hives up on blackberry nectar flow and miss out on possible surplus honey from that flush.

The honey that bees produce when they feed on meadowfoam tastes SO good. It’s my personal favorite “flavor” of honey because it has character without being weird (like gnarly buckwheat honey). Henry won’t extract a whole lot of honey from these hives, but our personal honey reserves are getting low, and I’d like to have at least a few jars of this deliciousness.

This field is actually at about 75% of peak bloom. Henry went back to check on things a few days later and said it was even whiter and brighter. It’s kind of a crazy sight to behold.