Growing season keeps commercial beekeepers buzzing

by | Mar 31, 2014

Honeybee colonies next to a blueberry crop in Bladen County.

Honeybee colonies next to a blueberry crop in Bladen County.

With blueberries in bloom in White Lake, some of the state’s tiniest agricultural workers are hard at work. Each year, farmers contract with commercial beekeepers to bring in tractor-trailer loads of bees to help pollinate their crops. This happens in North Carolina as well as other large agricultural states, including California. Each tractor-trailer load holds about 450 colonies. Each colony has about 50,000 bees.

Nationally, there are about 2.6 million commercial honeybee colonies.

Jeff Lee, owner of Lee’s Bees in Mebane, tends to about 1,500 hives. During the growing season, the work of the bees doesn’t end. In February, Lee’s bees were in California to help pollinate the almond crop. An estimated 1.6 million of all commercial beehives start their busy pollinating season in California.


Unloading honeybee colonies from a tractor-trailer.

The bees will be busy for about a month with the blueberry crops in the White Lake area of Bladen County. From there they will travel to Maine to help pollinate that state’s blueberries. Then on to Wisconsin for cranberry season or back to North Carolina to help pollinate cucumbers that will be used in Mt. Olive pickles. Lee also uses some of his bees in honey production.

The bees travel with a large net over the tractor-trailer to prevent escape during daylight hours. “When we are ready to load or unload the bees from the truck, we wait until dusk or until the temperature drops below 50 degrees,” Lee said. “Bees return to their hives at night or in cold weather. As long as you wait until later in the day for loading up, bees aren’t left behind.”

While the bees are at work with the blueberries, inspectors with the department’s Plant Industry Division will check the colonies. “Our inspections are three-fold,” said Apirary Inspection Supervisor Don Hopkins. “We inspect the bees for general health, brood diseases and population. We then issue certificates of health so they can travel on to Maine or another state in need of pollination services.”

Hopkins and his team also provide an extra set of objective eyes for the farmer and beekeeper. “We do a frame count for each colony,” Hopkins said. “A box holds 10 frames and the standard is to have seven of the 10 full of bees. A lower quantity would mean the colony is small and the farmer is not getting his money’s worth. Higher would be seen as a bonus to the farmer.”

Crops, especially almonds, berries and vegetables, depend on the services of the honeybee. And we depend on the bees. An estimated one in every three bites of food is produced thanks to a bee and its busy work.

North Carolina has about two dozen commercial beekeepers. “Our state has mostly hobby or small-scale beekeepers,” Hopkins said. “Our North Carolina State Beekeepers Association is one of the largest in the country, with about 3,000 members.”