How much does it cost to borrow a colony of honeybees?

A beehive

The House Agriculture Committee heard testimony on Thursday about the toll Colony Collapse Disorder was taking on beehives nationwide. Growers complained that the skyrocketing cost of renting bees was forcing them to raise prices on crops. Just how expensive is it to rent a colony of bees?

Between $10 and $180, depending on the season. When you rent a colony of bees, you aren’t just shelling out for the insects—the per-colony rental fee typically covers the cost of transporting the bees, setting up the hive and collecting the colony at the end of the contract. (Click here [PDF] to see a sample contract.) If you don’t need a full hive’s worth, you can buy (not rent) a package of bees and have them delivered via the U.S. Postal Service; three pounds of them might set you back $75.

Colony rental prices are highest from early February to mid-March, during the pollination season for almonds. The almond crops in California are entirely dependent on honeybees, and every spring they require more than half the commercial bee colonies in the nation. (Beekeepers as far away as Florida send their product to the West Coast to meet the demand.) This year, California almond farmers paid up to $180 a colony, and their appetite for the insects pushed up prices for growers all over the country. Rental fees can drop by more than a factor of 10 later in the spring, as beekeepers look for a place to leave their bees until a more lucrative season.

The price of a colony also depends on what you plan to do with it. In the Northeast, pumpkin and cucumber farmers pay more for hives because pollinating their patches isn’t quite as nutritious for the bees and may limit the hive’s growth. (Apple producers in Pennsylvania are reporting prices around $65 per colony this year, compared with $100 for pumpkin farmers.) But no matter what you’re pollinating, prices are higher than they used to be: Increased demand overall, combined with a reduction in supply as a result of Colony Collapse Disorder, has made costs double or even triple in recent years (PDF).

When you order up a colony, expect your delivery to arrive via truck: For the cross-country shipments, about 450 boxlike hives are loaded into a semi and transported as quickly as possible, taking care that the bees don’t overheat. Once the bees arrive, the hives will be unloaded at night—most bees don’t fly in the dark—and placed in the fields. Over the course of pollination season, forager bees will roam free during the day and then return to the hive by dusk. The exact number of colonies needed to pollinate a field varies, but it’s between one and two hives per acre for most crops. Depending on the time of year, the population of a colony will ebb and flow. A high-quality rental colony often has eight frames, each holding a sheet of honeycomb; each frame might have only 1,500 or 2,000 bees at the beginning of the almond season. Later in the year, however, the populations might triple in size.

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Explainer thanks Keith Delaplane of the University of Georgia, Joe Traynor of Scientific Ag Co., Dennis van Engelsdorp of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, and Shannon Wooten of Wooten’s Golden Queens.