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  • Writer's pictureStaff @ LT&C

Stricken by freeze and record drought, Louisiana honey producers saw yields slashed in 2023

The beginning of 2023 started strong for Steve Bernard, owner of a Henderson-based bee farm and producer of Bernard's Acadiana Honey. A cool spring rolled in, and new growth and flowers began to peak out slowly out of their winter dormancy. 

The bulbs of the Chinese tallow tree appeared shortly after. The tree, considered a weed in most of Louisiana, is a beloved source of nectar for honey bees that flock to its string of yellow flowers.

But in late March 2023, a hard freeze brought temperatures down to 20 degrees. It was followed by a record-breaking heat wave and drought over the summer. The combination wreaked havoc on Louisiana honey production, Bernard said. 

"It's devastating," he said, "I'm surprised we didn't lose more, to tell you the truth."

That loss in production is shown in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2023 number for Louisiana honey production, which was released March 15. 

The state saw a 44% decrease in honey production in 2023 compared to a year prior and a 30% loss of bee colonies, according to the data. In 2022, Louisiana produced 2.5 million pounds of honey. Last year, Louisiana's bees could only muster 1.5 million pounds. 

"Those two weather events affected all sorts of commodities in agriculture and beekeeping," said Keith Hawkins, an LSU AgCenter horticulture agent in Beauregard Parish. "The productivity of the tallow tree was low. Then we had a drought where anything the bee would forage on probably isn't blooming and it's questionable how much nectar it can actually provide."

Indeed, the double hit of a freeze and drought brought to heel many stable Louisiana crops such as sugar cane and crawfish. Sugar cane was able to rebound into a boom crop in 2023 because of denser sugar varieties and increased acreage. 

Louisiana is a large honey producer that, in a typical year produces more than three million pounds of honey, according to the USDA.

The state is dwarfed by industry leader, North Dakota, which produces more than 10 times the amount of honey. The state also lags southern producers Texas and Florida.

Bernard's bee farms, known as apiaries, are spread across the Acadiana region. The family has been raising bees and growing honey since 1918, Bernard said. Among his 56 locations, he cares for 5,400 bee colonies. 

Over normal a winter Bernard expects to lose some of his bees but when the hard freeze hit in spring, he lost 40% of his colonies, he said.

In a typical year, those colonies might have been able to bounce back for an April harvest, but drought conditions made it difficult for them to forage enough nectar and pollen to rapidly grow. 

The conditions must be just right for bees to create a bountiful harvest and exponentially grow their population, Bernard said.

Too little rain, the nectar simply is not in supply and low moisture also makes the nectar physically harder, he said. Too much rain and the nectar becomes oversaturated and bees are unable to dry the nectar quickly. 

Joel Carmichael, owner of Carmichael's Honey Farm based in Sunset, said 2023 was one the worst harvests he has seen. His spring production was cut in half.

"The freeze burnt every bloom and every blueberry, every satsuma, every bloom succumbed to the cold. There was no food for the bees, and it killed a lot of the brood (bee larvae) and it just stopped everything," Carmichael said.

During the winter, bees huddle together for warmth, Carmichael said. They can keep the inside of boxes at a balmy 98 degrees. Bees begin to spread apart in spring when temperatures rise. The queen ventures on the outer edges of the honeycomb to start laying her brood. 

During a cold spell back in March 2023, those bees condensed to preserve heat at the same time leaving their brood on the edges to die, Carmichael said. 

"Then after that, we had a record-breaking heat and drought that cooked everything relentlessly," Carmichael said. 

Carmichael relocated a portion of his 10,000 bee colonies to north Louisiana, to an area better equipped to handle drought because of a groundwater irrigation network that is less common in southern regions of the state.

"There is something askew."

While 2023 was a bad year, there has been a steady decline in bee colonies and honey production in Louisiana, according to the USDA. In 2013, the state produced five million pounds of honey and had 50,000 colonies.

That follows a nationwide decline in production, from 240 million pounds of honey produced in 1987 to just shy of 160 million pounds in 2017, according to the USDA.  

The reason for the decline in production is multifaceted, Bernard said.  

In the 1980s, a mite from Asia was introduced into Florida, Hawkins said. The mite, known as the varroa destructor, has plagued American apiaries.  

"One beekeeper compared it to having a tick on your dog," Hawkins said. 

Bernard said on top of mites, his bees contend with fungal infections and a bacteria called the American foulbrood. All these things combined lead to something called Colony Collapse Disorder. 

"The fungus grows in the gut of a bee. That spore ruptures and spreads, again and again. The gut of the bee gets full of these spores, and they can no longer process food. You find what looks like a good hive at one time and in two and a half weeks they crash," Bernard said. 

Scientists and beekeepers have yet to discover a way to stop the fungus spread by the mite, Bernard said. 

It has hit Bernard's apiary hard, he said. Bernard used to source all honey from his farms for commercial sales; now he has to buy from other farms to keep up with production.

His product is still 100% Louisiana-made but it only consists of about 50% of their honey now, he said. In the past, the company could easily create 600 barrels of honey.

"Now we're buying as much as we produce in order to bottle honey," Bernard, "Now we're struggling to do 300 a year and last year was our worst crop ever."

Besides clear culprits such as mites and disease, several other factors have gone into the bee decline, including pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and suburban sprawl into rural communities that lead to increased gas emissions. 

"It's death by 1,000 cuts," Bernard said, "It's scary, for the future of beekeeping but also for the future of mankind. There is something askew, something not right in the environment."

"Our bees will be fine."

Hawkins said the USDA's number does not consider every beekeeper in the state, rather it focuses on medium to large-scale producers. 

Beekeeping as a hobby and side job has skyrocketed in recent years. These hyper-local honey producers are selling at farmers markets, small grocery stores and from word of mouth rather than selling to large chains like Walmart and Albertson's, Hawkins said. Those beekeepers are not reporting numbers to the USDA, he said.   

He also said awareness of growing Louisiana native pollinator plants and the general climate, lush ecosystems and high humidity of Louisiana makes the state a perfect place for bees — when we are not facing hurricanes, floods, record droughts and freezes.   

"Our bees will be fine. I think our bees locally are doing well except last year when we had the drought. I still get so many complaints about [bee] infestations," Hawkins said. 

Carmichael believes that crossbreeding bee species and introducing the Russian honeybee into colonies will increase yields in the future. He said that Russian bees are mite-resistant and other crossbred bees show the ability to sniff out mites and kill them. 

Farmers in the past have been reluctant to introduce new bee variants, Carmichael said. But as production continued to decline, he sees many farmers begin to introduce new species into their rotation. 

"I've used them for about 16 or 17 years. Now there are more resistant bees that I'm continuing to use. Since we've started using better genetics, we're doing a whole lot better," Carmichael said. 


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