Honey industry facing crisis

Associate Editor

STAFFORD, Va. (April 18, 2017) — The way Jerry Mattiaccio sees it, there’s a bottleneck coming in the honey business.
Increasingly unpredictable weather is stressing and killing bees to such a degree that he’s losing between 40 and 60 percent of his colonies each winter.
The insects occasionally drag pesticides from plants they’ve visited back to their boxes, he added, which can cause entire colonies to abscond or die.
On top of that, Mattiaccio owner of Rock Hill Honey Bee Farms in suburban Virginia, often feeds gallons and gallons of corn syrup to his insects even as the price of that syrup continues — strangely, considering the sunken price of corn — to rise.
Standing in front of one of his colonies last week with a metal smoker full of burning wood chips, he returned to the heavy colony losses — again, 40 to 60 percent.
“I don’t know of any industry that can sustain that,” he said.
Fellow Virginia beekeepers and honey makers know his pain.
Freezing temperatures in Virginia late last spring depressed honey production in the state in 2016, according to the USDA.
Across the state, honey production from producers with five or more colonies last year totaled 190,000 pounds, down 17 percent from 2015.
“The late season freeze hit when most honey production occurs and when honeybees collect most of the nectar needed to make honey,” said state apiarist Keith Tignor in a statement. “Consequently, there was a significant decrease of available nectar.
Beekeepers struggled the rest of the year to keep the population going, but the bees made less honey.”
Though Mattiaccio’s business comes primarily from renting out his 1,000 or colonies to pollinate farms and orchards across the country, he said his honey production business saw significant decline last year as well.
“We’re all just trying to scramble to survive,” he said.
Though national honey production was up 3 percent from 2015, the value of honey production in Virginia in 2016 was $1.1 million, a 12-percent drop from the previous year.
The average amount of honey harvested per colony — 38 pounds on average — was equal to 2015’s yield, however.
“We are losing honeybees at a very high rate,” he said. “More than 32 percent of the honeybee colonies were reported lost by beekeepers in Virginia during the winter of 2015-16.” 
John Klapperich, owner of Sweet Sofia in Lake Ridge, Va., southwest of Washington, said he’s also witnessed declines in production.
His business sells honeybee-related consumer products including, honey, sunscreen, beeswax candles, lip balm and “baby butt cream,” an all-natural, non-toxic cream for sore baby bottoms.
“The main (problem) was a solid month of rain in May,” he said. “It rained everyday in May. When that happens, it washes out the nectar from the good sources. We also had a late freeze.”
When weather unexpectedly warms too early, he said, bees often venture outside, their queen begins to lay eggs and they prematurely eat into their reserves, which becomes a serious problem when the weather dips back into freezing or cold temperatures.
On top of that, mites have increasingly become a problem in bee colonies, leaving them weak as they enter the winter.
“It makes my costs go up considerably,” Klapperich said. “I don’t feel like passing that cost up to the consumer, so I just take the hit on it.”
If honey production is an important indicator of honeybee health, then crop farmers should be concerned.
Honeybee pollination is estimated to contribute more than $16 billion in the value of U.S. crops each year, said Tony Banks, a commodity marketing specialist at the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.
These days, Mattiaccio said the unpredictability keeps him on edge.
“They’re livestock,” he said. “I get nervous whenever I roll into a bee yard because you don’t know whether that’s the day when your bees aren’t going to be there.”