The Inner Cover

Did you take a good look at that photo? It was taken several years ago by Sylvia Jadczak. If her last name sounds familiar it’s because her husband is Tony Jadczak, who was, until just recently the State Apiary Inspector in Maine. The hives belonged to Dave Mendes she told me, and they are sitting on the blueberry barrens of SE Maine. You’ll note the bear fence protecting them from Maine’s marauders, and the million or so bees in the air, all looking for lunch.

Maine’s blueberries get short shrift when it comes to pollination events. These are wild blueberries you know, low to the ground and a lot less demanding of pest and disease protection than a lot of crops. They are native to the region, and, mostly, growers simply remove the trees and shrubs and let the plants do their thing. There is some chemical protection, sometimes, occasional irrigation and they have figured out easy ways to help them reproduce and spread, but they are about as close to a natural crop as you’ll find.

When you get in the middle of a large stand of these, you’ll notice different colored clumps here and there. These are different varieties and, like apples, are needed to cross pollinate to set fruit.

They bloom right about Memorial Day every year, so a lot of beekeepers travel from the west coast to the east coast in the time between finishing almonds and before blueberries bloom. It’s a lot of miles for those beekeepers. Many however, that keep bees on the east side of the river don’t do almonds and stick to blueberries and other more local croops. That much travel is hard on equipment, people and bees, but almonds are an attractive crop, financially, and it’s hard to say no.

Some years, some beekeepers make a wild blueberry honey crop, and if you’ve tasted it, you’ll envy the beekeepers who live there and can simply let their bees make all the wild blueberry honey possible. It has a wonderful fragrance and has a kind of blueberry jam aftertaste that I’ve not found anywhere. I don’t know if the high bush blueberries grown in the southeast – Georgia has a lot for instance, but they had a late freeze and lost most of them this year – have similar honey because either the beekeepers don’t share with us northern folks, or the bees simply don’t make it. Perhaps someone can let us know. Better, if there is some regular blueberry honey out there, sharing would be in order. You can send it to me here at the magazine office.

I mentioned short shrift compared to almonds. That crop commands something like a couple million colonies to pollinate a million acres of trees. There aren’t a million acres of wild blueberries, but there are tens of thousands….I think the last number I heard was about 70,000 but it may be more than that. But they have to give half their crop a year off, so they are only producing on half those acres each year. There is production competition from the Canadian Provinces just north and east of Maine, and the market for wild blueberries is only so big, so expansion may have slowed some since I was there last. That, and growers are getting better at producing more berries on the same amount of land

You can kind of figure out how many colonies are used when you see that the recommendations for renting colonies are, depending on the isolation of the blueberry field, from three colonies to five per acre. So, you can round that out to, say, 150,000 colonies roll into Maine the middle of May to make wild blueberries.

Like I said, you can’t compare them to almonds, but they are second to no other crop, and a lot bigger than whatever comes next. Almonds may get all the ink, but once you taste wild blueberry honey, you won’t ever look back.

The 2016 National Honey Report and More

I encourage you to take a long look at the Annual Honey Report that starts on page 28. We do this every year, and it takes us about a week to gather and grind out all the numbers. We use the USDA NASS report that tells us colonies in every state, yield per colony, how much honey was produced, how much is still sitting in warehouses, and the calculated value of all that.

We use those numbers, then look at the USDA ERS report that tells us all about honey imports and exports, where to, where from and for how much. And we touch the Farm Service Agency to find out how much honey is under loan, so it was made last year, but hasn’t been sold, so it gets grouped kind of like regular stocks in warehouses. And then look to the Census Bureau for a head count on July first each year.

One thing we didn’t include in the report is that as of January 1, fully 25% of last year’s crop hadn’t been sold. Was that normal, we wondered? So we looked back 5 more years, and, it seems, it’s exactly normal. Crop sold by year’s end ranged from 88% to 74%, but most years right about 25% is sold when they take the survey. Which means, right about 75% of the US honey crop is moved between harvest, which is, what, say over by mid-October or so, to end of year. 10 weeks.

Another interesting note is the number of people working in operations with more than five colonies. This year, 24,000 folks are employed by these commercial operations. Or sideline and commercial operations to be more exact. With 2.8 million colonies, that comes to each person being responsible for 116 colonies, when averaged out. We know that’s not the case because the rule of thumb, sorta-kinda, is in a commercial operation it runs about 1000 colonies/employee, or 10 times the average. Interestingly, if you look at USDA recognized farms that have fewer than five colonies, you have 19,000 employees running 24,000 colonies, or an inner cover over one colony/employee. One can twist these numbers in a lot of ways that tell a gibberish story, but at least this year there’s a better picture of some of the industry.

Input cost differences between the two groups bears notice. One would expect there to be a differential cost when purchasing in quantity. When you buy a 1000 queens, pre-ordered a year in advance, you should expect a better price and probably better service than when you need just one the end of June. Tomorrow.

But the cost/colony difference that caught my eye was  Varroa control. The big guys are paying half of what the small counts are paying. Half. And, I’ll bet you a buck, the small counts aren’t counting labor. Who counts labor, anyway. Unless you’re paying salaries. You can bet that price includes labor for the bigger operations. So why half? Buying in quantity? Maybe. Using very cheap controls? Maybe. Not treating when needed, or, treating just when needed and not just because? Maybe.

Compare that difference to the cost of feed. Almost identical. And I’ll bet another buck that the big operations are getting quantity discounts and using cheaper material – imagine a tanker of HFCS compared to a 10 pound bag of sugar to make syrup. No contest.

Well, this is all new this year, so there may be some bumps in the road. Or not. A few year’s experience  will show patterns that will be predictable and useful.

Other interesting numbers from the per capita calculation. In six years we have increased honey in by 30%, and honey out by 50%. Our total consumption went from 368 million pounds in 2012 to 520 million pounds last year – a 30% increase. And the population has increased by 16 million, 5%, in the same time frame.

USDA NASS is doing several surveys a year now, looking at colony losses, causes of losses, numbers of colonies, cost of pollination and more. We’ll keep tabs on those and see if we can’t get a whole series going, and then tie them together for what will be a first good look at our whole beekeeping industry.

I’m getting ready to go to Florida about the middle of this month to give a talk to members of the National Candle Association at their annual meeting. Our parent company here, Root Candles, is an active member with two of our staff holding offices. They invited me to give a talk several years ago when they met in Phoenix. It’s not unlike a beekeeper’s meeting, with business sessions, vendors, talks and workshops, lots of networking and social stuff to keep folks busy for several days.

We have Varroa, but they have their problems too. The EU, and pretty soon California are worrying about the smoke and soot and what not that candles give off when burned. And when you think of the fragrances, dyes and different waxes used in candles it can get pretty complicated. And there’s more to waxes. Different waxes of course burn differently. Paraffin is often used, especially in cheaper candles, and it is a petroleum product with all those issues. Soy wax is renewable and a clean burning wax and is used quite a bit, but can’t be used for every kind of candle. Palm is renewable, or, as they want you to think, sustainable. Something like three football fields worth of land a day are felled to plant more palms for the oil. That can be an issue. But it, too, can’t be used for every kind of candle. And then there’s beeswax. That’s where I come in. They want to know what’s going on and what will be going on with beeswax.

Because of the cost, beeswax has typically been used mostly for the liturgical market. Beekeepers of course make pure beeswax candles, and rightfully charge an arm and a leg for them. Beeswax is clean burning, sweet smelling and attractive.

But issues of availability, cost and foreign substances in the wax have candle manufacturers asking questions because they have to plan three to five years out for sourcing their waxes and production schedules. And they want to know.

I don’t know if what I’m going to tell them will be reassuring. Beeswax comes from honey production, and you know where that’s going in this country. I’ll let you know how it turns out. Wish me luck.