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The Benefits of Research Funding – A California Perspective

Joe Traynor

Some beekeepers question the need for funding bee research. Because they don’t see any obvious benefits, they feel research is not that important. Any type of research is fraught with frustration – for every fruitful product of research there are at least 10 projects that end with no discernible benefit. As one sage (Marston Bates) put it “Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind.” Too many beekeepers focus on the blind alleys and not on the sporadic successes and feel they’re not getting the bang for their bucks. Researchers, feeling the pressure to produce results, tend toward safe projects rather than take a flyer on a project that shows no immediate promise of results but, if pursued in depth, could provide spectacular benefits.

In recent years, the almond industry has funded more bee research than the bee industry (a fact that should embarrass beekeepers). If, as a few beekeepers think, beekeeper funding of research is a poor investment, then almond growers must be assessed as not being very smart. Such an assessment flies in the face of my observations as all the almond growers I’ve encountered appear to be just as smart (and just as independent) as beekeepers.

Bee research has greatly benefited California beekeepers over the years, although in ways that are not readily apparent. Allow me to point out some of these benefits.

I got started in the honey bee pollination business in 1959, working for a commercial pollination company managed by Charles Reed and based in the San Joaquin Valley. In 1960, a large melon grower in Western Fresno county had heard that bees might be beneficial to melons but needed more proof before he spent big bucks on bee rental. Reed had close ties with Frank Todd and Sam McGregor of the USDA Bee Lab in Tucson and they provided the necessary proof (based on their research): that the size of a melon is dependent on the number of seeds it contains and the number of seeds is based on the number of pollen grains transferred (a prime cantaloupe requires the transfer of about 400 pollen grains which in turn requires about 10 bee visits per flower). This research data convinced the grower and he rented 3,000 bee colonies for his 3,000 acres of melons at alfalfa seed pollination prices ($6.00/colony at that time) and he came up with the best yields he ever had. The idea of renting bees for melons is now an accepted practice in California and in the years since 1960, melon pollination fees have put millions of dollars in beekeeper pockets.

Like Jim Robertson (August issue) I also encounter considerable price cutting on melon pollination. A few years back I told our largest melon account that part of the reason for our high prices was that the stronger hives we supplied lost weight (consumed honey) during melon bloom; you’re trying to get the crown set on melons and there are simply not enough flowers to support the bees. This potential honey loss provides an impetus for beekeepers to select colonies with the lowest populations (often divides) for melon pollination and to put their better colonies on honey locations.

To prove my point with the melon account mentioned above, I rigged up two scale hives and had the grower record the weights daily. As with most melon bees, the hives came out of the oranges quite heavy and at the end of the melon pollination period (before there were copious melon flowers) the scale colonies had lost roughly 20 lbs. or $10 worth of honey each. The following year (at the suggestion of a beekeeper who is a bit smarter than I am) we weighed two bee trucks (120 colonies per truck) as they went into the melon fields and again as they came out. One truck lost 20 lbs. per colony and the other 30 lbs. (per colony) and the grower was satisfied our prices were justified. Funding a similar study by a respected institution (beekeeper data lack credibility) could help beekeepers maintain higher melon pollination fees (for growers with on-ranch scales I can see a fee based on weight-in and weight out). Such a study, if funded, should be done well before cotton bloom and the melon field(s) should be isolated from any significant nectar sources (a normal state of affairs for most melon pollination). To make it more interesting, the weight change of a load of eight-frame strength bees (or divides) could be compared to a load of 16-frame strength bees.

There is much less research data on the benefits of strong colonies for melons than there is for almond and alfalfa seed. Perhaps a study could be initiated to show that melon growers could get by with less colonies per acre (and lower per-acre pollination costs) if strong colonies were used.

More recent melon research by Frank Eischen, et al has shown that bee deliveries to melons can be delayed long enough for growers to get one or more pre-bee sprays (if needed) with no loss in melon production.

Alfalfa Seed
The history of alfalfa seed pollination in California is also research based. Alfalfa seed production in California started in the late 1940s, at which time there were many questions as to whether honey bees could do the necessary tripping of alfalfa flowers to effect pollination. Honey bees were ineffective pollinators of alfalfa in the main seed producing areas at the time (the Midwest and Pacific Northwest) because they just didn’t or wouldn’t trip the flowers. Todd and McGregor showed that in the drier climates of the desert areas of the southern San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys, honey bees were effective pollinators of alfalfa (due in large part to accidental tripping by nectar collecting bees because flowers tripped more easily at lower relative humidity). As the humidity has risen in the San Joaquin Valley (due to widespread irrigation that has changed what was once a desert into an agricultural oasis) alfalfa flowers don’t trip as easily as they did 50 years ago, but honey bees still do the bulk of alfalfa pollination in California and probably always will.

Pollination fees for alfalfa seed have put millions of dollars in the pockets of California beekeepers over the years and it is research that laid the foundation for this bounty. One of McGregor’s students, Mike Rosso, now operates an alfalfa seed pollination service and commands a premium price for the beekeepers that work through him. Growers are willing to pay this premium price because Rosso has shown them the research data that justify it. Similarly, many beekeepers are able to command a premium pollination price for almonds (and for other crops) because of research that has shown that higher priced hives are usually worth the extra money.

Cotton
Although bees have not been proven to be essential for cotton in California, the scattered research reports that have shown benefits from bees (you don’t get any more bolls, but more seeds per boll, thus bigger bolls) have helped me to get cotton locations for beekeepers (and have made at least a few cotton growers more careful about their pesticide programs). A past study in California failed to prove the benefit of bees to cotton because it was impossible to get a check (no-bee) field but it is felt that cotton fields in alfalfa seed areas get better yields because of their proximity to large populations of honey bees.

Pesticides
Research on the toxicity of pesticides to honey bees is another area that has helped all California beekeepers. Bee-pesticide research, particularly that by Larry Atkins, has led to judicious use of certain pesticides around bees and has saved billions of honey bees over the years, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley. When a beekeeper says he’s getting “clobbered” by a certain pesticide, his words don’t carry a lot of weight, but if research data can be shown that a particular pesticide is indeed a serious hazard to bees, people take notice and restrictions are put in place. It’s a “show me the data” world and Atkins and others provided the necessary data, in good part through the use of dead-bee traps placed in hive entrances.

An interesting pesticide problem around 15 years ago was also solved by research: beekeepers claimed they were getting clobbered by the pesticide Monitor, yet Atkins’ dead-bee traps indicated that Monitor was a relatively safe material to use around bees. The losses claimed by beekeepers were due to queen and brood loss and didn’t show up until well after the Monitor was applied – Monitor was a stealth killer that had slipped in under the radar. Beekeeper claims were ignored until Eric Mussen, in a neatly designed experiment, provided the necessary data to show that Monitor did indeed cause severe bee losses. The use of Monitor around bees is now greatly restricted and such restrictions, based on research data, have saved millions of bees.

Pesticides and oranges
Bee-pesticide research has also helped California beekeepers make more orange honey. As a former San Joaquin Valley beekeeper, I made virtually all my honey during the two to three week period of orange bloom. One of the reasons I got out of the bee business is that just as my hives were going gang busters on orange bloom, the grower would “have to” spray with a highly toxic material. The year after I sold my hives a spray moratorium was put in place in the citrus areas of the San Joaquin Valley – growers can’t spray with highly toxic materials from 10% bloom till petal fall. If a grower does have a pest problem, he is allowed to use certain materials (e.g., lannate) that have been shown, by research, to be relatively safe to use around bees if applied before 7:00 a.m. or after 7:00 p.m. The result of this research-based moratorium has put millions of dollars in beekeeper pockets through increased orange honey production and reduced pesticide losses.

Summing up
The vast majority of beekeepers support funding of research (although they may disagree on the method of funding) just as the recent referendum showed that the vast majority of beekeepers support the Honey Board (in spite of the somewhat paranoiac implication by a few beekeepers that this vote was in some way not representative). The vocal few who rail against spending money on research make a noise far out of proportion to their numbers. The enthusiasm with which these few present their case has a certain appeal but when their case is examined closely, little of substance can be found.

In recent years, California farmers, beleaguered by their small representation in state and federal legislatures, have erected billboards stating “When you complain about agriculture, don’t talk with your mouth full.” A similar phrasing could apply to beekeepers, especially California beekeepers, that complain about funding research.

References:

McGregor, S.R. Insect Pollination of Cultivated Crop Plants, USDA Agricultural Handbook No. 496 (1976).

Eischen, Frank, Benjamin Underwood and Anita Collins, The Effect of Delaying Pollination on Cantaloupe Production. Journal of Apicultural Research 33(3):180-184 (1994).