FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Dennis Arp downshifts his aging flatbed truck and slows to a crawl as he points across a grassy meadow near Mormon Lake.
In years past, the field would have been carpeted with flowers, but the coming bloom is late.
This trend has become the norm with recent dry spring seasons, he says. That’s likely bad news for this year’s honey crop.
“You look at these meadows out here and think, ‘Wow, I should be making tons of honey,’ but it just doesn’t work that way,” Arp says from the driver’s seat. “The bees do best when they have an almost unlimited food supply.”
He’s been bottling his Mountain Top Honey for decades from his home in Mountainaire after starting with just 120 bees and a passion for the insects.
Arp, who’s nearing the age when most retire, looks more rancher than entomologist. His work boots are well-worn and a T-shirt that fits snug on his strong-frame is tucked into his jeans.
These days, much of his income isn’t from honey, but from pollinating California’s almond groves. This industry has been hard hit by bee colony collapse. The mysterious ailment has also increased the worth of a transported beehive at least five-fold.
With two employees, Arp now keeps more than 1,000 hives across northern Arizona. About 100 of those are south of Flagstaff on private property at Mormon Lake.
Here, the sound of 4 million bees penetrates the tranquil landscape as Arp wears a bee suit and pumps smoke into a colony from a metal canister. With the bees sedated, he reaches down and pulls the pollen trap from underneath the hive.
The bottom of the trap has a thin layer of tiny orange and yellow nodules that were collected into balls of pollen by foraging bees and transported back to the hive. The bees, which were only recently moved from their winter grounds in the Winslow area, are stretching out to collect from the wildflowers now blooming in the area.
With the first frost just around the corner, he worries the wet weather might not be enough for the late flowers.
“You can’t fool Mother Nature,” he says.
And while other flowers just down the road might be better, he can’t just pick up and move the colonies — he has to pay $700 first for an environmental assessment of a potential new site.
The bee pollen that Arp runs through his fingers is a hot item in the health food industry, which
— without official medical validation — uses it as a dietary supplement to maintain overall good health. For the colony, the pollen will be used to feed infant bees during their larval stage in the brood cell.
But as the bees are developing, they are becoming food themselves.
After chasing off the thousands of bees crowded onto a single rack from the hive, Arp knocks open several larval honeycomb-shaped cells and pulls out the bodies of several still-developing white drone bees. Tiny, brown mites shaped like horseshoe crabs are crawling across their bodies as they feed, mate and lay their own eggs.
“That’s the scourge of beekeepers right now,” Arp says, rolling the drones over to show where they’ve been eaten, noting the mites are “giving me all kinds of grief.”
The air is alive with healthy bees, but on the ground around the hives are individuals that have had their wings destroyed by a disease the mites carry – the crippled bees are useless to the hive. The victims are expelled from the colony and survive only a couple days.
Arp and countless other beekeepers across the country are now forced to treat for the tiny mites, called Varroa Destructor, which can only breed in honeybee colonies. Arp and other beekeepers will begin their treatments in fall, or lose their hives by late autumn.
Regardless of the treatment, he will still lose 20 percent to 30 percent of his hives – around 300 total— before the end of the year. This is colony collapse disorder in northern Arizona and it is a major loss to his pocketbook.
North of Bakersfield, Calif., Arp has been working with the same almond grower for 20 years.
When he first started trucking his bees west, their six-week contracts were sealed with a handshake for the princely sum of $30 per hive. Arp says this year’s contract for him and his colleagues is likely to land somewhere between $150 and $200 a hive.
“They couldn’t get enough bees, so they kept raising the prices,” he said.
Arp brought 872 hives to California last pollinating season.
There’s no real choice for the almond growers, who net 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of almonds an acre with the imported pollinators and just 500 pounds without.
But that same high-priced contract and widespread colony collapses have combined to pump up the scrutiny on the bees. The growers inspect the individual racks of bees to ensure there are enough pollinators. The expected density is written into the paperwork.
Arp wonders out loud as he examines his hives if he wouldn’t be better off without his honey business, Mountain Top Honey. Many of his beekeeping friends simply opt not to go through the hassle of collecting surplus honey.
He already has a hard time keeping the shelves of local stores well-stocked with Mountain Top Honey and says he currently has to turn down new resellers.
And the high pay of pollinating is paired with high overhead and risks. His yearly fuel costs alone swell to more than $15,000 and the bottles for honey aren’t cheap, either. Meanwhile, the threat of an even greater loss lingers in his mind.
One of the nation’s major beekeepers lost half of his 50,000 hives last year.
Now in his 60s, Arp says his kids aren’t interested in keeping the business, but he doesn’t plan to stop beekeeping anytime soon.
“We’ve made a living out if it for 30 years and put two kids through college,” Arp says.