Beekeepers build high-tech storage to improve hive survival

A high-tech bee storage facility built in Twin Falls, Idaho, last fall kept winter kill of hives to just 6 percent, leading to plans for a second area storage building. Bee storages protect hives during the winter until they're moved to California for pollination, and are becoming increasingly popular.

SHELLEY, Idaho — Beekeeper Adam French plans to build a large, modern facility in which he’ll store hives, hoping to curb his winter-kill losses.

French, with Cox’s Honey, explained he wants as many hives as possible to survive the winter so he can take full advantage of increasing demand for pollination services in California’s almond orchards. He’s noticed a trend of regional beekeepers investing in bee storage lately, rather than leaving hives exposed to the elements or turning to the historic standby among Idaho apiaries — renting space in potato cellars.

In the past five years, French estimates almond producers have increased payments for pollinators by $35 to $50 per hive to the $175-$210 range. According to USDA, California’s rapidly growing almond industry produced a crop valued at more than $5 billion in 2015 and stepped up its acreage by 7 percent to 1.24 million acres in 2016.

“The incentive is now greater than it’s ever been to have those bees alive in the winter,” French said.

For several years, his family has stored up to 10,0000 hives in uninsulated “shell” buildings during the cold months preceding late January, when the bees are needed in California. He’s leased space in a local potato cellar for the surplus hives. Though both options have served him well, French said his storage buildings are outdated, and he can’t always count on finding an available potato cellar.

Last winter, he was forced to leave 2,100 colonies outdoors, and he lost 500 of them.

Next year, French plans to build a new facility in Nampa with the capacity to hold 15,000 colonies — allowing him to expand production. His building will be insulated and climate-controlled to maintain a constant temperature, and it will be modeled after a new facility built for Noyes Apiary in New Plymouth, Idaho.

Last fall, Shaun Steele, with Steele Apiaries in Eagle, invested nearly $600,000 to build a 15,000-square-foot bee storage building, frustrated by rising lease rates for potato storages. In his first winter in the new building, Steele stored 3,500 of his own colonies and leased space for 9,800 colonies to local beekeepers.

Last fall in Twin Falls, Israel Bravo and the local potato cellar manufacturer, Agri-Stor, built a cutting-edge bee storage facility with technology to regulate humidity, carbon dioxide and temperature using a smart phone. In its first winter, Bravo said the “smart storage” lost just 6 percent of the 17,000 colonies held for a Texas beekeeper.

Bravo will be breaking ground soon on another Twin Falls storage facility, with plans to rent space to area beekeepers. He said he and Agri-Stor may build a third building next year. They also intend to offer equipment comprising the “brains” of their facilities to small, regional beekeepers, enabling them to retrofit existing buildings to have controlled temperatures, carbon dioxide and humidity.

Bravo finds the high humidity, dusty air and pesticide traces in potato storages are often less than ideal for bees.

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