ESI Lecture Series
Wally Thurman, Ph.D. - Combing the Landscape: An Economic History of Migratory Beekeeping in the United States
Introduction - The European honey bee, Apis mellifera, does not seasonally migrate. But human beekeepers in many locations do. Migratory business models have developed such that commercial beekeepers and honey bees form a symbiotic pair–bees in hives, and humans in trucks, following the blooms of pollen- and nectar-producing plants across America.1 Neither would follow the seasonal and geographic pattern of blooming plants without the other, but together they reliably do. The Apis species, in partnership with its human symbiotes, travels in the spring from flowering crop to flowering crop (almonds, vegetable seeds, and many fruits and vegetable), amplifying the pollination power applied to these crops. After the spring peak bloom season, humans and bees migrate to areas rich in blooming plants for nectar forage, and the economic production function shifts from pollination to honey production. The modern situation has been well described in the popular press (see Nordhaus, 2011) and economics literature (see Rucker, Thurman, and Burgett, 2012 and 2019).
In the modern day, well-developed markets for pollination services coordinate beekeepers and their bees with crop growers who demand their services in the spring. Prices in these markets embody the costs of beekeeping and the relative value across crops of the fruit and honey produced from pollination (see Rucker, Thurman, and Burgett, 2012), and broadcast these signals to suppliers and demanders. We argue in this paper that without the development of the migratory business of beekeeping there would be little or no contracting for pollination services and nothing that one would be inclined to call a market. Further, the late-19th and early-20th century history of beekeeping shows that the impetus for migratory beekeeping was the search for nectar and the economic return to producing honey. In this way, migratory beekeeping led to the introduction and subsequent widespread deployment of a non-native insect to the agricultural landscape, a transformation in North American beekeeping, and a transformation in the production of many economically important crops.
Many of the economic forces that drove development of pollination markets are common to the broad economic history of North America in the 20th century – mechanization and the internal combustion engine importantly among them. But the effects of technological change on beekeeping were different from those on agriculture in general. They arose from a particular mix of industrial, biological, and economic innovation, and the development of basic knowledge in horticulture and entomology. The ultimate effects involved dramatic increases in the employment of land, which mechanization did not induce in other areas of agriculture.
Bio - Wally Thurman is a William Neal Reynolds Professor at North Carolina State University. He has published widely on agricultural and natural resource topics, including the effects of U.S. commodity programs, markets for pollination services, private land conservation, and compensation schemes in agriculture. Thurman earned his B.S. degree in Environmental Studies from Utah State and graduate degrees in Economics from Montana State and the University of Chicago. He is a past editor of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, a Fellow of the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association (AAEA), and a Senior Fellow at PERC, the Property & Environment Research Center.