Bee shortfall raises honey prices

For Julien Bohbot, honey prices are no small matter. 

The Moroccan-born owner of Pico-Robertson’s kosher Delice Bakery says he uses about 150 pounds of honey for Rosh Hashanah sales — almost all of it in honey cake. In fact, about 90 percent of the honey he uses throughout the year is for the Jewish New Year.

Bohbot says that over the last several years, honey prices have consistently increased. A recent purchase of 25 pounds of the sweet stuff, Bohbot told the Journal, cost him $300 — his “most expensive” honey purchase per pound since he opened Delice in 2001.

But honey is not the only ingredient that’s hitting bakeries like Delice. 

“Everything from almond meal to flour to anything is up,” Bohbot said. 

That Bohbot mentioned almond meal and honey as two examples is no coincidence. The sweet, ground nuts that make up almond meal depend on honeybees pollinating almond trees. And with honeybees dying off due to what scientists call “colony collapse disorder” (CCD), consumers can expect to continue to see increasing prices of honey and perhaps even of some of the fruits and vegetables whose growth depends on pollination.

CCD refers to the decimation of an estimated 10 million beehives in America — worth $2 billion — since the winter of 2006.  According to a Time magazine Aug. 19 cover story, “The Plight of the Honeybee,” this year California’s almond farmers barely had enough honeybees to pollinate almonds, a market worth nearly $4 billion. Grown in the Central Valley, almonds are California’s most valuable agricultural export. 

The possible consequences of CCD are vast. Honeybees save farmers untold amounts of time and money. When honeybees, in their search for nectar, inadvertently carry pollen from plant to plant, they are doing what farmers would have to do by hand if not for the bee — pollinate plants that grow fruits and vegetables such as blueberries, cherries and lettuce. 

Many beekeepers and scientists point to neonicotinoids, a relatively new class of pesticide, as a possible culprit for the bee die-off. The Agricultural Research Service, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says on its Web site that it has yet to pinpoint any specific cause. It is also looking into such things as the effects of pathogens, parasites and environmental stressors.

When a beekeeper opens up a hive hit by CCD, the honey will often be safely stored in the honeycomb, ready for extraction, but nearly every bee will be missing.

According to Harry Stein, a beekeeper who lives in Canoga Park, bees flee a hive when they detect an infection. Stein’s theory is that agricultural pesticides like neonicotinoids make bees’ immune systems more susceptible to diseases like varroatosis, which is caused by varroa mites and has been found in many bee-less hives.

Stein, 70, has been working with bees for 50 years. He currently keeps 120 hives and sells Harry’s Honey at local farmers markets. He said that his hives used to suffer from CCD but that he moved them to a location free of chemicals, like pesticides.

“Thank goodness, my bees are doing fine,” Stein said. “I keep them in areas that aren’t sprayed by man.”

Susie Lamey, the office manager of Bennett’s Honey Farm in Fillmore, said that honey prices have increased by 20 percent in the last year. The reason? The supply of bees, and thus the supply of honey, has dropped, she said. 

“Beekeepers are having a hard time keeping their colonies alive,” Lamey said. “We pay the beekeepers 20 percent more for their honey, and we have to, in turn, increase our price on retail sales.

“The bees are dying off, and with bees dying off it means the production of your honey is less,” she said. 

According to numbers from the National Honey Board — a research and promotion board under USDA oversight — since January 2006, the price per pound of honey has increased from $3.88 to $5.97, nearly 54 percent, far outpacing the rate of inflation (16 percent) over that period.

The American Bee Journal, the oldest English language beekeeping publication in the world, wrote in its August bulletin that honey’s record prices won’t be dropping anytime soon, “especially if consumer and industrial demand for honey continues to be strong.”

Lamey said that in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, sales of Bennett’s honey, which is certified kosher by the Rabbinical Council of California, always increase. 

At Delice Bakery, Bohbot said that leading up to the New Year, he gives away mini versions of his honey cake to all customers — even with the new normal of high honey prices. (He estimates his honey bill has gone up at least 50 percent over the last seven years.)

“It’s crazy — every year.”