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Swarm of interest yields sweet prices

California almond growers’ cry for more honeybees is indirectly keeping a Stafford County man’s business buzzing.

Growers needed 1.6 million honeybee colonies—or nearly half of all for-hire bee hives in the United States—to pollinate 800,000 acres of almond trees earlier this year. A tight supply sent the monthly rental fee per hive soaring.

“That’s a multi-billion dollar crop,” said Jerry Mattiaccio, owner of Rock Hill Honey Bee Farms Inc. “Almonds have to have honeybees to pollinate them.”

Instead of $130 to $140 per colony, desperate farmers were paying $245 to $250, he said. Lured by the high prices, many beekeepers who would have divided their hives between California almond groves and the orange groves in Florida opted to send all their colonies to California.

While Mattiaccio didn’t truck his bees to California, he was among the few commercial beekeepers who did take bees to Florida. The resulting orange honey crop is smaller this year than normal, and prices are escalating.

He recently harvested about 3,000 pounds of the citrusy tasting honey that he describes as “outrageously delicious” from 150 hives he placed in a 4,000-acre orange grove in Vero Beach. He’s already sold all but 400 pounds to a Richmond distributor, grocery chains and some mom-and-pop stores. It will retail for about $10 a pound.

“A lot of people like it better than wildflower or clover honey,” said Mattiaccio, who is selling it for the first time this year. “It’s a premium honey.”

He uses bees to pollinate everything from oranges in Florida to blueberries in Maine. Next week he’ll cover 20 hives set on pallets with a special net, load them onto a trailer and haul the industrious insects to Miller Farms in Locust Grove, where they’ll pollinate a variety of produce.

Mattiaccio is already looking ahead to next year, when he plans to team up with a beekeeper who takes hives to California’s almond groves.

“It’s better to work with someone to learn the ropes and then branch out on your own,” he said.

Besides honey, Mattiaccio also sells beeswax, beekeeping supplies and bees. Lots and lots of bees. A queen bee is currently on sale for $25, and a one-story beehive, which contains 60,000 to 80,000 bees, goes for $350.

Mattiaccio started helping his father keep bees when he was 9, but spent his career in the Army where he became a special agent in the Army’s criminal investigative unit. After retirement, he did a stint as a private investigator before going into beekeeping with his wife, Sydney Mattiaccio, full time in 2009.

“There is phenomenal growth potential here,” he said. “Prices are rising. This is the first time ever that they didn’t have enough bees to pollinate the almond crop in California. I bet you the price for hives next year will be close to $400.”

Mattiaccio admires bees and likes to say that he has 4 million workers who never call in sick and never complain. They just live to work.

Unfortunately, they’re also in decline due to mites, small hive beetles and other factors such as colony collapse disorder. Last year beekeepers lost about 50 to 60 percent of their bees nationwide, he said. Bees that die near the hives can be sent to experts to determine what killed them, but others never return. That makes figuring out what happened to them difficult.

“Guys are just losing and losing and there’s no end in sight,” Mattiaccio said. “It’s tough to deal with. You’re losing bees and you don’t know why.”

Researchers are working on solutions, such as breeding queen bees that come from proven “hygienic” stock and are more resistant to or tolerant of such things as mites and disease. (Hygienic bees are better at removing diseased bees from the hive, which helps to keep the hive healthy.)

Beekeepers are also using such things as SuperBoost, a synthetic pheromone that tricks workers into thinking they have a larger brood to feed than they actually do and causes them to forage more aggressively. It’s been used for several years with mixed results, Mattiaccio said.

“I think we’re reaching a critical point,” he said while watching bees flit around the grassy field behind his house, “If we don’t find a way to reverse these [colony] losses, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407


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