Before World War II, beekeepers provided bees free to growers, whose land provided sufficient flowers before, during, and after crop bloom. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, beekeepers all over the United States realized they should be paid for the service; bees could be making profitable honey instead of pollinating crops. Beekeepers started asking for modest fees, sometimes only $0.50 per colony.
Today, while some beekeepers and growers use written contracts, many still consider the business of pollination a gentlemen’s agreement. The grower and beekeeper mutually decide when the bees will be moved in and out, as well as colony placement and strength. Beekeepers trust that growers will not spray harmful pesticides while the bees are foraging, or at least will notify them if and when spraying will occur. Beekeepers trust there will be water available for the bees, preferably within one-quarter mile of the colony, as a colony requires up to 1 gallon (~4 liters) of water per day. Growers pay beekeepers an agreed-upon price, and at the end of the bloom they shake hands and say, “See you next year; same time, same place.” Some growers pay the beekeeper 50 percent of the fee upon delivery; the other half when the bees are removed. If the grower is dissatisfied with the strength or performance of the colonies, the last payment can be reduced.
The gentlemen’s agreement is fraught with miscommunication and problems. One way to avoid this is to work with a written contract, often developed by a broker, or middleman, who, for a cut of the pollination fees, negotiates prices and timing and placement of hives. Sometimes brokers inform growers how to protect the bees from harmful pesticide exposure. They sometimes also arrange for the beekeeper to provide more colonies if needed. Even with a broker, the beekeeper is usually responsible for collecting colony rental fees. If the grower doesn’t pay, the beekeeper loses.
The broker or grower inspects a certain percentage of the beekeeper’s colonies and determines the fee based on average colony strength. In almond pollination, a beekeeper may get paid by the average number of frames of bees per colony. One box holds nine to ten frames, and each colony is usually hived in two boxes. Beekeepers will not get paid for colonies that have five or fewer frames of bees; ten or more frames garner the best price. The colonies must have laying queens and at least five to seven frames of brood (eggs, larvae, and pupae).
For almonds, bee brokers are common, and a number of reputable brokers are available. For cranberries, blueberries, apples, or pumpkins, brokers are not often used, possibly because bee colony rental fees are not as high for these crops. Whether a middleman is used or not, a signed pollination contract between the grower and beekeeper is highly recommended. A handshake may seem like a more friendly way to do business, but a contract is binding and can ensure a long-lasting business relationship.
Again, the biggest problem with verbal pollination agreements is miscommunication. Both beekeeper and grower can make assumptions about the timing of moving bees in and out of the crop, placement, access to the bees, availability of water, pesticide use, colony strength, and payment schedule. If intentions are not spelled out ahead of time, disaster can easily follow.