By Joe Traynor
Bakersfield, California

To be successful in pollination, the first thing a beekeeper must do is easier said than done: forget about honey production - at least for the time the bees are needed in pollination.

Almost by definition a good job of pollination means that bee populations on the target crop are so high that there is little or no surplus honey (or pollen) production. Bees generally don't do well on pollination for a number of reasons, including:
  • increased competition
  • increased exposure to pesticides
  • increased drift

Also, each time colonies are moved, 2% queen loss can be expected - 4% for the in-out pollination move.

Pollination fees are meant to compensate beekeepers for the loss of honey and the loss of bee populations incurred as well as for the extra work distributing colonies in relatively small sets. These fees can vary widely, from 0 to $100/colony depending on supply-demand, the time of year and the crop in question. In California's central valley there is free pollination in some instances:
  • a kiwi planting next to a citrus planting (kiwis bloom right after citrus)
  • prune (and often apple) orchards bloom right after almonds and before citrus and provide a food source for bees during what could otherwise be a dearth.
  • a late (August-September) alfalfa or melon planting adjacent to cotton if the grower can guarantee that there will be no insecticide applications (there could be a charge for each application). There is virtually no rainfall in California from June through September so August-September locations are valuable.

$100/colony pollination fees are rare but could occur under difficult placement circumstances such as cage pollination, experimental plots where bees must be moved in and out on precise dates or in the middle of a cranberry bog.

In general, pollination prices for a given crop are determined by supply and demand and follow a typical bell-shaped curve (Figure 1). The most successful beekeepers keep to the right of the curve.

Beekeepers generally set pollination prices too low because they look at a pollination job as a location rather than as a valuable service. Once this mind-set is established, receiving a reasonable pollination fee takes a back seat to keeping the location.

It is, of course, essential to beekeepers that wish to "keep to the right of the curve" to know what other beekeepers are charging. The very low number of colonies rented at very low prices (at the left of the curve) often receive far greater attention than their numbers warrant (growers are quick to spread the word of such low fees); a beekeeper that doesn't have a firm handle on pollination prices often sets his price too low.

Because knowing what other beekeepers are charging is a big help in setting prices yourself, get a good feel of what rental prices are for a specific crop. Michael Burgett (Oregon State University) regularly publishes pollination prices for a number of crops in the Pacific Northwest (1). California beekeeper Kevin Roberts performed a similar service for beekeepers pollinating crops in California. In surveying 67 beekeepers covering 17 California crops, pollination fees were found to be higher than most beekeepers thought (2). If similar data aren't available in your area, encourage an institution to perform such a survey (or, like Kevin, consider doing it yourself). Lack of knowledge of pollination fees for a crop coupled with the fear of losing a pollination job (or a location, however one looks at it) often causes beekeepers to set prices too low.

If you're going into pollination, come to terms with one fact of life: there has always been price cutting (by other beekeepers) and there always will be price cutting - it's a given, just as surely as a bee will get inside your veil at least once a year. The best response to price cutting is not to over-react (that bee making all that noise inside your veil often turns out to have no stinger). Trying to meet price-cutting competition is like taking off your veil to get that bee out - you'll get stung a lot more in the long run.

Look at pollination from the grower's point of view. For most growers, the main pollination concerns are, in order of importance:
  1. Dependability - getting the hives delivered on time each year, every year. Late deliveries can cause significant crop loss - there is no acceptable excuse for late delivery.
  2. Strong, active colonies - hives of sufficient strength to do the pollination job, managed in a professional way.
  3. Price

If you "keep to the right of the curve", growers will always complain about price - it's their right, just as it's your right to complain about the prices you pay for goods and services. Accept such complaints gracefully. There will always be a few growers that will put price at the top of the list of pollination concerns. Do you really want them as customers? You will save yourself a lot of headaches if you just ignore such growers; let them congregate in the small area at the left hand side of the curve with sympathetic "lefty" beekeepers - perhaps they deserve each other.

In regard to price, many growers are suspicious of unusually low prices as they figure there's got to be a catch (and there usually is). Michael Burgett tells an amusing story in this regard - he gave a talk at a meeting of apple growers and warned that low-price bee rentals often meant sub-standard colonies. A lefty beekeeper attended the meeting and the following day he sent a revised price list to his growers showing sharp price increases - he wound up with more pollination business than he could handle.(3)

One way we have helped neutralise price cutting in almond pollination is to offer growers colonies of varying strength - 2, 4, 6 or 8 frames of bees at varying prices (from $20 to $45). California almond growers have been educated that 8 frame or better colonies are best for almond pollination (we provide the necessary University studies if there's any doubt) and they invariably want the 8 frame colonies because they're the best buy on a cost per frame basis (we let the grower do the math on this). In over 20 years of using such a multi-price schedule only one grower rented colonies of less than 8 frame strength (and he did so for only 1 year). Similarly, one could offer a cut-rate price if time of delivery wasn't guaranteed - that is, delivery to all other growers would have to be completed before delivering the cut-rate hives. So far we haven't had the nerve to offer such a deal.

Long-term pollination arrangements are best for both beekeepers and growers - it's a hassle to line up new growers (or beekeepers) each year. The 2 keys to establishing a successful long-term relationship with a grower are the same as the ingredients of a successful marriage: communication and mutual respect.

Although the pollination season lasts only a short time, keep in touch with your grower throughout the year. Let him know that you (and your bees) are alive and well and are already planning for next year's pollination. Keep abreast of what's happening on his ranch - has he added or reduced acreage, sold the ranch, etc. Beekeepers that don't keep in touch can sometimes get an unpleasant last-minute surprise. Consider sending out a newsletter to keep in touch; such a newsletter could include beekeeping cost studies from a respected source (4), an account of problems beekeepers are facing or independent studies showing the value of bees for a grower's crop. Be aware of problems your grower is facing - consider subscribing to ag publications that could provide such details so that you can intelligently discuss his crop; let him know that you have an interest in his business and that your sole concern is not simply collecting a pollination fee.

Communication just prior to delivery time is extremely important. The very worst feeling a grower can have is to see his flowers (his livelihood) on the verge of opening and be unable to contact his beekeeper. In the days leading up to bloom, call your growers to let them know when the hives will be delivered. Always have someone by your phone round-the-clock during bee delivery time even if it means hiring an answering service for a short period of time - a live person is far superior to a machine during this period. If you make enough preparatory calls (pre-emptive strikes) you could well go through the delivery season without a single grower calling you. Set prices for a given season at least 3 months prior to bloom. By doing so you are indirectly telling the grower "I want your business and respect the fact that you may want or need to shop around for prices but I am confident that the quality of my product and service will cause you to decide to stick with me." There is no reason why a beekeeper can't set pollination prices 6 months ahead of time. Throwing a 10% price increase (no matter how justified) at a grower just prior to bloom shows an almost contemptuous lack of respect that often elicits a reciprocal lack of respect. Once you set your price (3 to 6 months in advance) don't change it (up or down) no matter how much pressure you feel - establish a reputation for sticking to your word.

Setting and negotiating pollination prices each year is an odious task. We have gotten around this by establishing a "continuous" clause in our written pollination agreements (about half of our agreements are in writing). For almonds (that bloom in February) this continuous clause reads:

This agreement shall remain in full force and effect from year to year until cancelled or terminated by either party. If either party wishes to terminate this agreement for any year subsequent to the year mentioned above, they must do so by written notice to the other on or before July 1 of the preceding year. It is understood that the rental fee per colony charged by Service [beekeeper] may increase in years subsequent to the one above. If the rental fee does increase, Service agrees to notify Grower of the new rental fee by July 1 of the preceding year and grower has the option of cancelling this agreement on or before 30 days after Service has given notification of the new rental fee; if Grower does not cancel this agreement within this 30 day period, this agreement remains in effect at the new rental fee.

We set our price for February almond pollination in June of the preceding year and send out a letter to our growers along with next season's price schedule; we inform them that they have until July 1st to cancel their agreement if the price hasn't changed and until July 31st if the price is higher. We always send out such a letter even if prices remain the same (respect) so that a grower can't claim he forgot about the automatic renewal date. Upon signing the initial agreement with the grower, we point out the continuous clause. A few growers request that we delete this clause, but most don't give it a second thought.

We started such continuous agreements in 1982 and still have some on file that are 15 years old but that are valid for 1997 at our 1997 prices. I got this idea for continuous agreements after receiving a letter from my insurance company regarding fire insurance on my house, "We are pleased to inform you that we have increased coverage on your house to reflect recent inflation. Acme Insurance Co. is continually looking after your interests." Along with the letter was a bill showing a 20% price increase in premium rates. My reaction was, "Thanks.... I think" but I, along with most everyone else, paid the increased premium.

Is a 2,000 colony beekeeper better off with ten growers taking 200 colonies, or one grower taking 2,000 colonies? For any given season, the 2,000 colony grower is best, but in the long run it's best to have ten 200 colony growers for the obvious reason that if a price cutter picks off a pollination customer you don't have to start completely from scratch.

Large-volume growers are nice, but they are also enticing to large-volume beekeepers looking to jump into pollination with minimum groundwork. Such beekeepers figure that any loss incurred from price shaving will be offset by reduced costs in recruiting and servicing growers. This is a perilous road for a beekeeper to travel since you're always looking over your shoulder for a similar ambush.

A major problem with large-volume growers is that they are usually multi-tiered organisations, with constantly shifting personnel in key management positions. The decision on bees could be a joint decision involving 5 people, any one of whom might not be there next year. You could spend considerable time cultivating who you thought was the key decision maker only to discover that he's working for another company on your next visit to the office and his replacement looks at you as if you'd just landed from Mars.

One way around this large-grower dilemma is to get a multi-year agreement. We have had 2 such agreements, one for 3 years (1988-1990; we lost the grower after 1990 when there was a complete reorganisation of the ranch). We recently signed a 5 year agreement with a large almond grower that has 5,000 acres of young trees and that will use 10,000 bee colonies 5 years down the road. To cover price increases, the agreement specifies that the grower is obligated to accept any price increase for a given year but that if the price increase is 10% or greater the grower has the option of cancelling the agreement (we don't plan to make a 10% increase). This agreement runs through 2000 (long-term lefties take note).

Bloom time is the best time for recruiting new growers and for holding on to current customers. Take the time to visit your growers during bloom and offer to open up and show him your colonies (you can provide a suit and veil or he can remain in his vehicle with the windows rolled up). Showing bee colonies to a potential or current client is 10 times more valuable (and believable) than telling him how good your bees are (were) 6 months later.

Many beekeepers, beekeepers that take pride in their operation, follow the general guidelines given in the preceding. They have found great rewards (other than monetary rewards) in the long-term relationships they have established with growers.

  1. Burgett, Michael. 1995 Pacific Northwest Honey Bee Pollination Survey. American Bee Journal, June 1996, pp.432-434.
  2. Roberts, Kevin. California 'Keepers' Dependence on Pollination Confirmed. Speedy Bee, December 1995, P.1.
  3. Burgett, Michael. Talk at research luncheon at California Beekeepers convention circa 1988.
  4. Manitoba Beekeeper, Summer 1989 (reprinted in U.C. Apiaries, Sept.- Oct. 1989).
A. Flottum, Kim. Proper Pollination, Using a written contract is good business. (includes sample contract). Bee Culture, April 1996, pp.218, 219.
B. Weaver, Mary and Bill. Is There a Pollination Contract in Your Future? Bee Culture, March 1994. pp.159-161.
C. The Honey Bee - A Growers's Guide. USDA Video sold by AI. Root Co., 623 W. Liberty St., Medina, OH 44256. $49.95 (postpaid in U.S.). (includes sample contract on accompanying sheet).