California, here they come.
Tens of millions of honeybees – rested from a two-month stay at John Gibbs’ indoor “winter resort” in Cattaraugus County – are en route to a sunny, six-week assignment in the Golden State.
Once there, they’ll spend February pollinating flowering almond trees to help propagate the state’s $6 billion annual crop.
“These guys are champing at the bit,” Gibbs said this week. “As soon as they see sunlight, they want to go, go, go.”
At Gibbs Apiaries in Gowanda, he operates what the state Farm Bureau believes may be New York’s only indoor wintering facility for honeybees. The populations of these vital pollinators are dwindling because of environmental threats from pesticides, invasive mites and genetically modified plants.
Honeybees – and pollinators, in general – are critical. They’re directly responsible for at least one-third of our food supply and a majority of nutritional food sources such as fruits and vegetables, according to estimates.
All of that hinges on these flying insects.
Gibbs and other commercial beekeepers make keeping them healthy their life’s work. “Pollination is the No. 1 thing that the bees do,” Gibbs said. “We’re definitely a spoke in the wheel.”
Gibbs is one of 45 commercial beekeepers in New York State, and the only one who over-winters his honeybees indoors at his home base of operations.
He nurtures the hives and protects them so he can rent them out to farmers who need their crops pollinated.
And his bees are now headed west because it’s big business.
A lucrative proposition
Getting each truckload of bees to California and back costs up to $14,000. But with almond growers paying beekeepers a couple of hundred dollars for every beehive they can rent this February, it’s a lucrative proposition for Gibbs. And it helps the California almond growers.
Two-thirds of the $6 billion annual almond crop is exported to Asian markets, said Paul Cappy, the state’s official apiculturalist, or beekeeper.
When business wraps up in California, the bees will come to upstate New York in time for their spring routine. They’ll do their part to support the state’s biggest industry – agriculture – in the apple orchards of Niagara County, the vegetable farms in the Eden Valley and the pumpkin patches of the Southern Tier among other fields.
And then there’s all the honey.
Last year, Gibbs’ bees produced 210,000 pounds of honey, or the equivalent weight of the Buffalo Bills’ 53-man active roster 16 times over.
Gibbs started in the beekeeping business more than 30 years ago after snagging his first swarm. He grew it into one of New York’s largest commercial beekeeping operations – one that since 2007 has included an indoor home for millions of bees.
The bees in Gibbs’ 4,050 hives live inside the bright red climate-controlled barn atop the Broadway Road hilltop during December and most of January. A colorful roadside sign features a pair of personified honeybees, smiling and boasting the building as “a winter resort for honeybees.”
Conditions are dark and chilly inside the barn. By design.
Fans remove moisture from the air; subfreezing temperatures can be fatal to beehives. The fans also filter out carbon monoxide and help maintain a constant temperature between 38 and 42 degrees.
Those delicate conditions are just right to make sure the bees are kept in a resting state while not stressing them too much during the often harsh northwestern Cattaraugus County winter.
Each hive houses 10 honeycomb frames. Each hive is kept inside a roughly 16¼-by-20¼-inch wooden box. So each box has up to roughly 25,000 honeybees clustered together in a low buzz, feasting on honey reserves. All the bees keep the temperature inside each box at a steady 95 or 96 degrees.
“They actually move around and keep the warmth inside,” Gibbs said. “And, they’re making baby bees.”
The hives are stacked six to a pallet and six pallets high in the barn, ready for February’s California job.
This week, it was go time.
Gibbs, his son Joshua and a couple of laborers loaded beehives Monday on a flatbed tractor-trailer. In all, eight tractor-trailers loaded with bees will head to California.
The bees stay hived on the weeklong trip west over Interstate 80 bound for Campos Brothers Farms in Caruthers, Calif.
Once they arrive in California, some of the hives are unloaded and spread throughout rows and rows of bright flowering almond trees at that site, about 18 miles south of Fresno. Others are spread across acres operated by growers associated with Paramount Pictures, Gibbs said.
Upward of 85 percent of Gibbs’ best honeybees will spend much of February there doing what they do best – pollinate.
In February, 6 in every 10 commercial honeybees in the country will be pollinating crops in California, Cappy said.
“California requires 1.7 million colonies for almonds,” Cappy said. “There are 2.7 million colonies in the United States.”
Cappy pointed to “a shortage of bees going to California,” where 90 percent of the world’s almonds are grown.
“They’re accepting beehives with 3 of 10 frames of bees in them,” he said.
Work is all the bees know
That has driven up the price of growing almonds – and the price – given production shortages from bee shortages and recent droughts in the state.
A pound of almonds, which traded for about $1.50 at the end of 2008, hit $2 by the end of 2011, and almost $3.25 by 2013. Now, it trades for more than $5.
California almond growers pay commercial beekeepers such as Gibbs around $200 per hive for their two- to three-week stays in February, Cappy said.
Toward the end of February, after the bees have returned from the almond fields at the end of the day, they will be loaded back onto flatbeds and come back to Western New York.
Once back here, they’ll spend the spring and summer pollinating vegetable fields at Amos Zittel & Sons and WD Henry & Sons in Eden, at Awald’s berry farms in North Collins, and in the apple and cherry orchards across the region, among so many more.
The bees wouldn’t have it any other way, Gibbs said.
“They only know how to work,” Gibbs said. “And, they don’t take off Saturday or Sunday.”