Agriculture

Turns Out, Migratory Beekeepers Are Essential Workers of the Pandemic

The agricultural system we’ve built depends on them

Elspeth Hay
Heated
Published in
6 min readJun 26, 2020

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Migratory beekeepers moving hives at night, as seen in the 2019 documentary ‘The Pollinators.’ Photos courtesy of Peter Nelson

Travis Schock is a migratory beekeeper: a honeybee farmer who travels the country with his hives. He and the bees get paid to pollinate, and already since February they’ve traveled thousands of miles across multiple states: from their overwintering grounds in Sebring, Florida, out to the California almond orchards, back to Sebring for the Valencia orange bloom, and up to the Michigan cherry field he’s driving through when I call. It’s pouring rain, the cherries are in full bloom, and he’s worried a few hives may have tried to swarm. “If I catch them quick enough and get them in a box,” he says, shouting so I can hear him over the storm, “they’re still mine.”

Schock works with a cherry conglomerate in Traverse City, Michigan, where he’s spent the past three years building 90 colonies into 900. The five counties around Traverse City produce 40 percent of the annual tart cherry crop in the U.S., which is why it’s known nationally as the “Cherry Capital of the World.” Cherries are one of over 100 North American crops that rely on commercial honeybee pollination. And while most of the economy has spent the past few months in lockdown, Schock and his bees can’t stop.

Schock works with a cherry conglomerate in Traverse City, Michigan, where he’s spent the past three years building 90 colonies into 900. The five counties around Traverse City produce 40 percent of the annual tart cherry crop in the U.S.

They are essential workers, vital to the success of the agricultural system we’ve built. Managed honeybee hives contribute nearly $20 billion to the U.S. crop economy, and without them, many of the crops farmers and consumers rely on would fail.

Take cherries, for instance. Cherry pollination is an “all-or-nothing proposition,” as the Michigan State University Extension service puts it. Unlike an apple flower, which has 10 to 20 ovules, a cherry blossom only has two. The apple flower requires a little more than 50 percent of its…

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Elspeth Hay
Heated
Writer for

Elspeth Hay is an independent writer & public radio host focused on food & the environment. Read & listen: elspethhay.com & diaryofalocavore.com.