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Mikkel Pates, Forum News Service, Published January 10 2014

New honey producer studies colony collapse in ND

TOWNER, N.D. – In the relatively invisible world of commercial honey producers, David Moreland is a newcomer and a rarity – a Californian almond grower who started his own apiary to pollinate his crops, as well as a research company to study colony collapse disorder.

Three years ago, Moreland, 62, bought a honey house from Leroy Brandt, who had an Oakdale, Calif., apiary that operated in the Towner, N.D., area. AgPollen Apiaries LLC now jockeys bees back and forth from Moreland’s home in Waterford, Calif., to Mississippi and North Dakota.

AgPollen Apiaries, a North Dakota company, runs about 2,000 to 3,000 hives. “We’re kind of at the small end of the big guys or the big end of the little guys and satisfying our own pollination needs in California,” Moreland says.

This year, Moreland got less than 60 percent of the crop he normally expects in North Dakota – often the No. 1 honey producing state in the country, partly because of bee health, and partly because of what he calls “something called corn and soy.”

“Those crops don’t produce honey, of course, and that’s replaced Conservation Reserve Program lands,” he says. But even beyond that, the bees were erratic. “We got good production on some and terrible or no production on some. It doesn’t make sense.”

Few producers are working as hard to find out more about the problem.

Moreland has become increasingly concerned about bee health and a collection of problems lumped together called colony collapse. He calls it a catch-all term for “anything and everything that’s going wrong with bees.” Essentially, hives dwindle and disappear.

In 2007, Moreland created AgPollen LLC, a California research company, in an attempt to commercialize the blue orchard bee for almond pollination. The blue orchard bee (Osmia lignaria, or orchard mason bee) is one of a handful of potential alternatives to honeybee pollination. The insect is native to California and prevalent in Western states. It is a good pollinator of prunus fruit crops such as almonds, plums and cherries, as well as apples and pears.

Blue orchard bees are solitary bees, unlike the honeybees that live together in hives. The females are bigger than a honeybee and are a dark, metallic blue color. They are wild-type bees, but companies are working on ways to domesticate, breed and manage them.

Moreland thinks a big part of the problem may be neonicotinoid chemicals, a class of insecticide introduced in late 1990s and now prevalent as a corn seed treatment, among other things. Neonicotinoids are systemic, going into the pollen and the nectar.

“The bees get it and they take it back to the hive, to their young,” he says. An Italian study published in December 2013 says neonicotinoids are suppressing bees’ immune systems, which would help them fight off viruses.

He thinks there are other problems – varroa mites, the “nosema apis” parasite, among them, he acknowledges.

“When you add all these things together, you weaken the bees,” he says. “Then, if anything goes wrong, they can get sick and die. In a hive, if you start losing bees, then you don’t have enough nurse bees to cover the brood and the brood starts to dwindle. The hive dwindles.”

Until science figures it all out, Moreland must go to great lengths to offset the effects of colony collapse – whatever its cause.

“We go into the almonds Feb. 15,” he says. “Almonds all bloom Feb. 15, which is hard to think about (for other crop producers).” At the end of March, he goes to Mississippi to split the hives into two or three boxes, he says.

“By then, the hives are strong with almond nectar and pollen,” he says. “We’re in Mississippi six to eight weeks – long enough to grow those boxes to get to be strong single boxes. We bring singles up to North Dakota, put a second box on and feed them into May until things start to bloom in North Dakota.”

The company gets permission from a landowner and usually places 40 hives in a location, making honey off canola, clover, alfalfa or weeds. At the end of August, they start extracting. That process usually takes about 30 days. AgPollen Apiaries is a member of the Sue Bee Honey cooperative, so sends honey and wax for processing in Sioux City, S.D.

In mid-October, Agpollen Apiaries loads the hives back on trucks and takes them down to California, so the process can start all over.

“I’m going to Mississippi because I can’t replace them fast enough in California,” he says. He feels fortunate to be in the so-called Pine Belt in south central Mississippi where there’s “no farming going on, no chemicals.”

In California, there are hundreds of thousands of hives on the ground in fields in a rest period, while the worker bees keep the queens warm as the temperatures are in the 40s or 50s.

“They just slow down,” he says.

Nicaraguans work bees for 12 years

David Moreland of Waterford, Calif., hires foreign workers on his operations in California, Mississippi and North Dakota, because of the inability to hire local labor.

“The vast majority of beekeeping employees in the U.S. today are Nicaraguans or from Mexico,” Moreland says.

Three Nicaraguans were helping him at the Towner, N.D., facility this year. He refers to them by their first names. Carlos and Jido have been working here seasonally for a dozen years. The two are cousins and keep bees in Nicaragua. They make more money in North Dakota than back home, where they hire someone to do most of the work on their own bees.

Moreland also recruited Douglas from a village where Moreland’s Rotary club had a housing building project and helps develop local beekeeping.

The temporary workers spend 10 months a year here under H-2A — a crop laborer visa program.

“H-2A is becoming more difficult,” Moreland says. “I can’t submit an application until 60 days before I want them here and if I can’t get them here on time, I can’t do my job. This is agriculture. You’ve got to do it when you’ve got to do it. The bureaucracy is getting more difficult.”

It involves major paperwork and is an expensive exercise, he says. The cost is several thousand dollars per employee per year.

“If we had a good guest worker program — if we got our act together in that area — it would benefit agriculture across the board,” he says. He predicts that if the federal plans for amnesty for citizenship for farm labor comes true, it will give those workers other opportunities and cause a farm labor shortage.

That happened before in the late 1980s, he says.