California beekeepers lead country, but worry about their future

The Associated Press
Tuesday April 02, 2002

VENTURA — Although their business is sweeter than that of out-of-state competitors, California’s beekeepers are worried they’re about to get financially stung. 

Hives in the state made 28 million pounds of honey in 2001 to re-establish California as the nation’s top producer, beating out longtime rival North Dakota. 

Even so, California’s production was the lowest in years, and the industry faces troubles ranging from foreign imports to pests to an ongoing dry spell. 

“I wouldn’t paint too rosy a picture, because it’s not,” said Red Bennett, a 60-year-old former NASA engineer who years ago gave up his interest in space flight for a honeybee farm north of Moorpark. “Beekeeping is pretty tough, and it has become quite difficult to stay in business. And right now, it’s looking pretty bleak.” 

With good weather and lots of pollen, California has been the most productive honey state in seven of the last nine years. Nearly half a million colonies produced last year’s crop, which was valued at $18.5 million, and the bees help farmers pollinate crops from almonds to summer squash. 

But the state’s beekeepers ranks have dropped about 25 percent to perhaps as few as 350 over the last decade, and the nation’s production has fallen about 20 percent over the same period. 

Prices have risen, in part because of tariffs recently levied against foreign exporters, but many U.S. producers say they’re still struggling to break even. 

“Beekeeping has changed so much in the last 20 years, and the industry has really shrunken,” said Lyle Johnston, a third-generation Colorado beekeeper and president of the 900-member American Honey Producers Association. “I think all you’ll find anymore are the die-hards working at it.” 

Eric Mussen, a honeybee expert at the University of California, Davis, said few younger beekeepers are waiting to take the place of the rugged individuals who have long made beekeeping their lives. 

“But it’s not too different from what you see in farming overall,” Mussen said. “I think there are a lot of (beekeepers) who would be more than happy to turn the reins over to somebody else. The question becomes, who — if anybody — is going to take over?” 

Max Eggman learned the profession from his father and older brother and has been beekeeping since 1967, but the 72-year-old Tulare County man said his children aren’t following in his footsteps. 

“It’s a dwindling industry, no question,” Eggman said. “I don’t see it being a dead end. I just think it will be harder and harder to be prosperous.” 

Some beekeepers, including Brian Cox of Ojai, rent out their hives to stay afloat. Farmers pay good money for help pollinating almonds in the San Joaquin Valley, avocados in Ventura County and other crops. 

“It’s the biggest deal for beekeepers; it’s basically what has kept beekeeping alive,” Cox said.