Current honey bee stocking information and an introduction to commercial bumble bees

With honey bee declines recorded around the world, rental hive prices have gone up and the new commercial bumble bee industry has seen more interest.

Current pollinator recommendations

Honey bees have long been the bee of choice for fruit and vegetable crops in the United States. They have traditionally been easy to manage in man-made environments, forage gregariously and can be coaxed into pollinating nutrient-deficient flowers such as those of cucurbit and solanaceous crops. Michigan State University Extension has reviewed the most up-to-date research literature on honey bee hive recommendations and rental fees in Table 1.

Table 1. Recommended honey bee hives per acre aggregated from Crop Pollination by Bees. Costs per rental hive are based on a survey of commercial farm beekeepers in the Eastern United States in 2010, except * denote hive prices for small market crops without published honey bee recommendations, and ° denotes crops were surveyed from Pacific Northwest beekeepers.

Crop

Published recommended hives per acre: range (average)

Cost per rental hive (average $)

Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers

-

$63.20*

Fresh beans

-

$63.20*

Squashes, zucchini

0.04 – 3 (1.5)

$54.00

Cucumbers

0.1 – 4 (2.2)

$58.85

Watermelons

0.2 – 5 (1.8)

$67.00

Muskmelons, cantaloupes

0.2 – 5 (1.8)

$67.50

Pumpkins

0.04 – 3 (1.5)

$80.70

Blackberries

1 – 4 (2.7)

$55.00

Raspberries

0.2 – 1 (0.8)

$55.00

Strawberries

0.5 – 10 (3.5)

$58.45

Blueberries

0.5 – 10 (3)

$69.10

Cranberries

0.2 – 10 (3)

$74.40

Apples

0.25 – 5 (1.5)

$53.80

Pears

0.4 – 2 (1.5)

$48.30°

Plums, prunes

1 – 2 (1.3)

$48.30°

Peaches, nectarines, apricots

0.08 – 2 (0.8)

$48.30°

Cherries

0.5 – 5 (1)

$55.00

Almonds

1 – 4 (2.5)

$130.70

Beekeeper rental fees depend on the amount of travel required, hive count and the nutrition of the nectar and pollen of the crops they will be pollinating. Additionally, some cropping systems have a wide variety of recommendations dependent on the presence of existing pollinators, crop flower attractiveness, planting densities and harvest timing.

In general, if your business model requires high densities of a uniform fruit size on large acreage within a short window of time, your best bet is introducing a high density of bees shortly after the first viable flowers bloom and then removing them after a couple of weeks. If you hope to make multiple harvests on a small scale, then often you will find that crops will require a smaller hive density for a longer time, or no hives at all in cases where native wild bees are present and healthy.

Lifecycle differences between honey bees and bumble bees

Interconnected factors, including sublethal pesticide accumulations, diseases, parasites, transportation stresses and flower availability, have been observed to increase winterkill and rental costs in the United States. This has fanned the flames of research on the commercial viability of other pollinators. Fortunately, through laboratory research on bumble bees in the 1950s, methods were developed to maintain colonies in man-made settings.

Bumble bee Honey bee
Bumble bees (left) are larger and hairier than honey bees (right). Photo credits: (Left, bumble bee) Julie Ducharme and (right, honey bee) Warren Photography.

By 1980, a small commercial industry started growing around Large Earth bumble bees (Bombus terrestris) in Europe and Common Eastern bumble bees (Bombus impatiens) in North America. Important life history differences affect their applicability in crop systems and their cost (Table 2), but these species were found to be especially adept at pollinating blueberries, cranberries, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. Current recommendations for bumble bees are extrapolated from research in the aforementioned crops, until more trials have been performed in other crops.

Table 2. Information in the table was aggregated from 2010 Eastern Beekeeper Pollination Survey; Insect Pollination of Crops; and Best Management Practices for Using Commercial Bumble Bees on Horticultural Crops in Delaware. Hive cost range does not include the cost of renting to almond growers, as that is an outlier at ~$130.

Factors

Bumble bee

Honey bee

Wild nest habitat

Old mammal burrows, holes, thickets of grass

Trees, ledges, internal walls of buildings

Overwintering habits

Queens abandon workers and overwinter alone

Queens and workers overwinter as entire colony

Lifespan

6-12 week lifespan

Perennial

Pollen and nectar affinity

Nectar and pollen collectors

Primarily nectar seekers

Greenhouse applicability

Successful indoor applications

Best in the field

Forage activity

Active above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, can forage in wet, dark, windy weather

Active above 60 F, prefers clear, sunny, placid weather

Hive climate preferences

Hive maintained at 86 F

Hive maintained at 95 F

Hive population

~50-200 bees per colony

~20,000-60,000 bees per colony

Hive cost

~$75-$120 per colony

~$55-$80 per colony*

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