David Bradshaw sat outside his modest beekeeper shop near Visalia, Calif., early this summer sharing his passion to supply the highest quality bees for crop pollination and a weighty arsenal of concerns which threaten many beekeepers’ livelihoods.

Bradshaw, 55, a second-generation beekeeper and owner of Bradshaw Honey Farm, is the caretaker of about 140 million honey bees housed in about 4,000 colonies (hives). Each colony includes about 35,000 buzzing honey bees per dual wood box.

The farm is considered a medium-to-large operation.

The Bradshaw family business was started by David’s father Howard, 80, in the late 1940s in Hawaii. The elder Bradshaw purchased his first beehive at a Sears Roebuck and Company store.

Bradshaw bees pollinate almonds, plums, kiwis, avocados, alfalfa seed, cherries, pomegranates, blueberries, and olives during the annual spring bloom. Most of the bees pollinate crops within a 10-mile radius of the shop.

The annual California springtime almond pollination ritual is the world’s largest pollination event.

“Almond pollination helps beekeepers make it financially from one year to the next,” David Bradshaw said.

For this year’s almond bloom, Bradshaw’s per colony rental price was $135; $20 lower than the average industry price of $155. Bee colony rates ranged this year from $120 per hive to $185 per hive based on a variety of factors.

Bradshaw’s lower cost is based on location, location, location.

“My colony rental price is lower because I don’t travel far,” said the second-generation beekeeper. “I don’t have as many transportation costs so I pass the savings along to my grower customers. I’ve been working with most of my growers for about 35 years.”

Crop pollination bee services generate about 65 percent of Bradshaw’s annual income with the 35 percent balance from honey production.

(For more, see: Pound of honey a stunning bee creation)

A major threat to Bradshaw’s financial bottom line is colony collapse disorder (CCD). CCD is a phenomenon first discovered in late 2006 when many worker bees in colonies located mostly in North America left the colonies and never returned.

Bee scientists worldwide have studied the puzzling problem and have not identified the culprit. Many experts believe the bee disappearance could be tied to a virus, the combination of a virus and a fungus, neonicotinoid insecticides, or royal jelly or pollen imported from China.

Bradshaw’s bees disappeared when the North American bee exodus occurred.

“I was stunned,” Bradshaw said. “Some of the bee hives were empty for what appeared to be no apparent reason. The bees left the colony to forage and never returned.”

Normally, Bradshaw loses 10 percent to 15 percent of his bees annually due to a variety of causes. Since CCD, his bee losses have elevated to 30 percent to 70 percent annually. Last year the total loss was 60 percent.

“I’ve lost 2,500 of my 4,000 colonies several years since CCD occurred,” Bradshaw said.

Bradshaw says his colonies are valued at about $150 each.

The massive bee losses from CCD have taken heavy personal, mental, and financial tolls on the Bradshaw family.

CCD, frugality, foraging

“I’m worn out. Every year I have huge losses and try to rebuild my operation,” Bradshaw said. “So far I’ve been able to provide quality bees to all my customers – either with my own bees or bees I’ve purchased elsewhere. I take it personally if I can’t take care of my customers.”

A call to the banker was inevitable.

“For several years Farm Credit West was my best friend.”

Due to CCD, Bradshaw’s net income from bees one year was about $15,000. He has considered throwing in the towel.

“I’ve gotten close, but beekeeping is what I’ve done all my life. Beekeeping is all I know how to do. So far, beekeeping has paid the bills, but it’s been tight.”

Bradshaw feels a strong responsibility to meet the needs of each customer.

A key reason why Bradshaw is financially alive today is frugalness — keeping his overhead low to weather unexpected events like CCD. His machinery to extract honey from the hives ranges from 30 to 60 years old. Two of the three semi trucks are 20-years-old.

“I have to work smart and cannot live extravagantly,” the 36-year beekeeping veteran said. “I would love to buy new machinery, but I have to choose my battles.”

Another threat to Bradshaw’s wallet is the California Air Resources Board regulation designed to reduce vehicle emissions by replacing the engine or the entire vehicle. He owns a seven-year-old semi truck in addition to the two, 20-year-old trucks.

“I cannot afford to spend $200,000 on new trucks,” Bradshaw said. “The ARB says my trucks are obsolete. It’s an engine issue, but putting more money in a truck than it’s worth does not pencil out. Even my seven-year-old Freightliner with 20,000 miles is obsolete.”

To voice his concerns, Bradshaw testified at several ARB hearings. He does not qualify for funding assistance as the mileage on the trucks is too low.”

Bee foraging is extremely critical to bee health and honey production. Bradshaw trucks bees up to 200 miles to forage. Destinations include Orange Cove for citrus forage, Ventura for avocado forage, Paramount Farms in Lost Hills to forage in pomegranates, the Coalinga area for buckwheat forage, and near Dinkey Creek in the High Sierra foothills for wild forage.

Some farmers and ranchers request a small fee to forage — others do not.

Since foraging builds healthier bees, Bradshaw related a comment shared by a friend. ‘The best thing for bees is diesel smoke.’ The point was that bee colonies should be moved constantly to forage in different areas.

“Keep the bees on wheels and take them to the best places available,” Bradshaw said. “If you have a hive of bees in your backyard, they will starve if never taken out to forage.”

He added, “It is only by the generosity of farmers and ranchers that we’re allowed to place bees on idle land to forage during the off-season. They understand the value of bees.”

About half of Bradshaw’s customers allow him to place bee boxes on land during the off-season. He could use additional areas.

Extracted honey from the Bradshaw operation is sold to the Sue Bee Honey cooperative and delivered to the company’s processing facility in Anaheim, Calif.

Bradshaw says beekeepers and farmers and ranchers have a close, respectful professional relationship.

“It’s a two-way street,” Bradshaw concluded. “Pollination is essential to many crops. Bees are essential for pollination to occur. Beekeepers need the pollination period to generate income. Well-foraged bees can deliver a successful pollination.”

The bottom line is farmers, ranchers, and beekeepers need each other.

“My theory is the more we work together the more successful we’ll all be,” Bradshaw said. 

cblake@farmress.com