sm honey bee hive panel

John Jacob, beekeeper and owner of Old Sol Apiaries, pulls a panel out of one of his honey bee hives next to a row of solar panels.

SALEM, Ore. — Beekeepers could soon feel the effects of drought in their pocketbooks as they scramble to provide enough nutrition for their hives to last through the year.

Hot, dry weather in Oregon's Willamette Valley is causing some of honey bees' natural pollen sources to bloom earlier than normal. When that happens, beekeepers may need to buy additional sugar syrup to feed their colonies later in the summer.

But syrup is expensive, and the more it takes to keep honey bees from starving, the more it will potentially drive up rates for farmers to rent hives to pollinate their crops.

Andony Melathopoulos, pollinator health specialist for Oregon State University Extension Service, said blackberries in particular are a key food source for bees in Western Oregon. Once they stop blooming, normally in late June, then it's slim pickings for the insects through July and August. 

This year, however, he said the bloom is several weeks ahead of schedule, even after some timely rain showers and cooler weather. With temperatures set to return to the upper 80s, 90s and possibly 100 degrees in Salem on June 21, Melathopoulos said it could end quickly.

"We've had dry years for a couple of years now," he said. "If we had bloom finish in June, I don't think that's ever happened, that I can remember." 

Clover seed, one of the last crops in the Willamette Valley to be pollinated, is also blooming early, Melathopoulos said.

While OSU is experimenting with different mixes of cover crops that bloom later in the summer for bees, such as Hubam clover and safflower, Melathopoulos said it is likely beekeepers will have to increase their supplemental feeding to survive this winter. 

"The period from July to September is critical, because the bees have to go six months without any food," Melathopoulos said. "If they're not set up properly, and if they don't get good nutrition in July and August, they don't winter well." 

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, all of Oregon is experiencing some stage of drought, including 77% in "severe" drought and 36% in "extreme" drought.

The situation is even more dire in California, where 85% of the state is in "extreme" drought and 33% is in "exceptional" drought — the highest drought category. 

Harry Vanderpool has been a beekeeper for 28 years in the south hills of Salem. He manages about 480 hives, and offers crop pollination services beginning in February each year, traveling south to California's almond orchards before returning to Oregon.

All beekeepers across the West have been concerned this year about low ground moisture, Vanderpool said. Blackberries are already turning brown at lower elevations around his farm, though he said it will take some time before he knows just how much that will impact honey production.

"This year is going to be one to really watch," he said. 

Vanderpool and other beekeepers typically travel to Portland where they can buy 275-gallon totes of sugar syrup to feed their hives. Depending on the size of the operation, he said the cost can easily reach into the thousands of dollars. 

"Sometimes with a year like this, you're just dumping that syrup in and you're back up there in a week," Vanderpool said.

"Every time you go up there, it's ka-ching, ka-ching," he added, mimicking the sound of a cash register. 

John Jacob, president of the Oregon State Beekeepers Association and owner of Old Sol Apiaries in Rogue River, Ore., said this drought has been extremely unusual. 

Despite the bone-dry conditions in Southern Oregon, Jacob said his hives are so far faring well. Nectar production has been good, Jacob said, which is perhaps the result of relatively moderate temperatures compared to past droughts. 

Jacob knows, however, that could change quickly. 

"I do fear it's going to turn off like someone threw a switch," he said. 

Like Vanderpool, Jacob said he faces the prospect of additional supplemental feeding. The syrup he uses costs $4.25 per gallon, plus $5 to $7 per gallon in fuel and labor.

"So far, I'm cautiously optimistic," he said. "Stat-wise, it seems like it could all end in the blink of an eye when it's this dry. But so far, so good." 

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