As the COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold, farmers whose crops rely on the pollination services of beekeepers are worried. The coronavirus pandemic has taken hold at a time of the year when an army of agricultural trucks begins the annual circuit carrying thousands of beehives to destinations that include almond farms in California, apple orchards in Washington, sunflower farms in South Dakota, cherry orchards in Michigan, and blueberry farms in Maine.1
Critical public health efforts to “flatten the curve” are disrupting the pipeline of experienced seasonal workers available to transport and tend the traveling hives. As Scientific American quoted Gail Feenstra, with the University of California Davis’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, “Everybody is scrambling to figure out what to do. There’s just a lot of disruption.” 2
The traveling pollinating services of beekeepers brought almost 2 million hives to the almond orchards of California last year alone. Once their work is done there, flatbed trucks transport 400 hives at a time on pallets moving them to the next crops awaiting their services. Dedicated workers tend the hives and ensure their safe transport. 3 The jobs often involve being in close proximity with other workers.
Thanks to the success of nationwide pollination services, farmers can grow abundant crops where local bee populations are insufficient to meet the demand. One USDA report documented that “through the provision of pollination services, honey bees support the cultivation of an estimated 90-130 crops, the harvest of which, directly and indirectly, accounts for up to a third of the U.S. diet.” 4
Estimated Acreage of Crops Pollinated by Managed Bees in the United States1
In Canada, farmers are concerned that screening and quarantine measures are slowing the return of experienced foreign beekeepers who may not clear all the hurdles in time for the agriculture season. In an interview with the CBC, one farmer explained that he sponsors the return of 7 temporary workers from the Philippines to help manage his 5,000 honeybee hives. Workers are usually onsite in Alberta by now, but the farmer explained, “It’s very difficult for the guys to go travel around and get their paperwork. They just don’t have it. So I expect there will be a shortage of workers.” 5 This is a special concern given the need for a two-week quarantine once they arrive in Canada.
According to the CBC, “the Canadian Honey Council is looking at options to charter a plane from Nicaragua, at a cost between $130,000 and $230,000, to bring in about 160 beekeepers…and Canadian beekeepers would have to foot the bill.” 5 To make matters worse, the visa process has been disrupted in many countries.
In the video below, a beekeeper with a small honey operation Manitoba describes the early effect of the COVID-19 crisis, including a decision made “in good conscience” to not engage a summer intern who usually helps with heavy lifting because the work requires close contact. 6
Rod Scarlett of the Canadian Honey Council told the CBC that beekeepers in Alberta are trying to source 350 workers, “Certainly, they will be looking at getting Canadians to go work with the bees, but with no skill and experience, it’s a steep learning curve.” He explained that it takes “two non-experienced workers and a supervisor to replace one experienced temporary foreign worker.”5
Another concern detailed by Scientific American is that “As COVID-19 leads to widespread income losses, fewer consumers may be able to afford specialized or high-value products, including organic vegetables.”2 Megan Konar, an environmental engineer from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign explained that unlike a natural disaster like a hurricane, “This is an interesting extreme event to food systems, because it’s really just a social event…There’s no weather shock or infrastructure failure or shortcoming…It’s a bit of a different sort of disaster than normal.”2
In addition to industry groups like the Canadian Honey Council, agricultural extension services around the country are racing to offer suggestions to help. As the Penn State Extension says, “Agriculture is a life-sustaining business because it is the basis of food production. Beekeepers are producers of animals and provide support activities for crop and animal production through pollination services provided by bees. Pollination is necessary for sustaining the food supply.”7
Alan Marritt, a Canadian who has been arranging travel for temporary agricultural workers to Alberta for almost 40 years told the CBC that the government agencies are doing their best to facilitate worker travel while assuring public safety. The process is taking time. He said, “Farmers are tough buggers, but I’ve been hearing tears in their voice.”5
1US Government Accountability Office. Bee Health: USDA and EPA Should Take Additional Actions to Address Threats to Bee Populations. Report to Congressional Requesters. February 2016, GAO-16-220.
2Poppick, Laura. The Effects of COVID-19 Will Ripple through Food Systems. Scientific American. 26 March 2020.
3Brancaccio D, Soderstrom E, Shin D. Why Dwindling Bee Populations are Threatening U.S. Agriculture. Marketplace. 23 October 2019.
4Bond J, Plattner K, Hunt K. Fruit and Tree Nuts Outlook: Economic Insight, U.S. Pollination-Services Market. USDA Economic Research Service (FTS-357SA). 26 September 2014.
5Malbeuf, Jamie. “It’s a complicated situation”: Temporary Foreign Workers Allowed into Canada, but There Are Hurdles. CBC News. 7 April 2020.
6Video: Beekeeping In Canada. Impact of Covid-19 on Our Beekeeping Operation. YouTube. 22 March 2020.
7López-Uribe, Margarita and Underwood, Robyn. How to Keep Bees During COVID-19. Pennsylvania State University Extension. 27 March 2020.
By R.A. Kroft
R.A. Kroft writes about her day-to-day journey in living a smaller, more sustainable life and other topics that interest her.
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