Stewart and Lynda Resnick’s Wonderful Co. is among a handful of honey bee farms responsible for the pollination of a third of Americans’ food. But the real buzz is how they rent them out.
Thousands of honey bees leave a cluster of wooden boxes and rush towards a vast grove of almond trees bursting with white flowers. It’s sweet-smelling springtime in California’s Central Valley, and the bees are about to cross-pollinate one of the country’s top cash crops.
The bee colony, and the orchard, are owned by America’s richest farmers, billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick. They run the privately held agriculture giant Wonderful Co., with $5 billion in annual sales from products such as Halos, Fiji Water, Pom Wonderful and seedless lemons. Wonderful’s roughly 80,000 hives, with about 4.5 billion bees, make it one of America’s largest beekeepers. There are just five or so companies that control the majority of the colonies in the U.S., and their bees are responsible for pollinating roughly one-third of the food Americans eat every year, from apples and onions to strawberries and carrots. Beef producers need bees, too, as the colonies pollinate feed ingredients like alfalfa seed and soybeans. Demand is so high for bees — with the supply suffering from annual die-offs — that Wonderful leases its pollinators to farmers as far away as Maine.
“Pollinators are imperative to the food supply,” Rob Yraceburu, the head of Wonderful’s beekeeping operation and the president of the company’s orchard farming, tells Forbes. “They’re crucial to ensuring a supply of fruits and nuts that we all have come to depend on.”
The Resnicks have built an agricultural empire. They know that crops without bees aren’t happy. A wide array of food plants don’t grow well without them. Nuts and fruits are smaller and fewer flowers sprout. Before they owned their own bees, the Resnicks brought in as many as 75 different bee companies every year just to pollinate their almond orchards. The logistical nightmare had to end, so in 2015, Wonderful acquired four small beekeeping companies and bred their own stocks from that foundation.
Since then, Wonderful has managed to avoid the pitfalls that many of its competitors face. Last year, about 40% of the country’s managed bees died, the highest annual loss in 11 years, according to the Bee Informed project at the University of Maryland. Wonderful, by contrast, says its bee population has been growing organically at an annual rate of 13% — the company hasn’t bought any new ones in five years — and the number of hives pollinating last year increased to 60,000 from 45,000 in 2021. There are roughly 60,000 bees in each hive.
Wonderful has about 4.5 billion bees. The bees travel to the Dakota prairies in summer to produce honey and pollinate wildflowers.
“We’re having less die-off because we’re taking care of them,” Yraceburu says. “All of our growth has been because we focused on bee health and we focused on moving bees to where there’s vegetation.”
After Wonderful’s bees pollinate the company’s almond trees in early spring, they hit the road in climate-controlled trucks to spread pollen in different farms around the country. Teams of two drivers typically take turns at the wheel, stopping only for fuel and food. The hives are covered with nets so the bees don’t flee during the journey. In early spring, they’re off to Maine for blueberries, then to Massachusetts for cranberries in June. The bees hit Texas, Mississippi, Florida to split the hives and increase the overall count, while making honey. Then the bees head to North and South Dakota and Minnesota for clover, wildflowers and canola for honey. They head into storage in Idaho, before returning home to California.
“It’s become a real business,” Yraceburu says. A profitable one, according to Wonderful, which declined to disclose specific numbers.
Pollination doesn’t come cheap. The going rate for almonds is a minimum of $400 an acre, according to experts.
The tension between falling bee supply and rising demand has been driving up prices for foods like berries, says Barbara Bar-Imhoof of the Center for Integrative Bee Research at the University of California, Riverside. “Pollination needs to be factored in for the prices of products,” she says. “If we can keep pollination assured and keep the bees healthy, that will help key prices stay within a reasonable frame, hopefully.”
Beekeeping can be a tricky business. Smaller outfits, with less than 1,000 hives, tend to be family-owned and can have a hard time providing the resources, capital and logistical support they need to farm out their pollinators.
That’s one reason why the industry is so top heavy. Ninety-five percent of beekeepers manage less than 7% of the country’s bees, according to Bee Informed’s annual survey. Seen another way, 2% of beekeepers manage 88% of the 2.3 million hives in the U.S.
The concentration leaves the industry vulnerable. Family-owned, privately held, South Dakota-based Adee Honey Farms, one of the biggest U.S. beekeepers, had to rebuild after a brutal collapse. In 2007, 90% of Adee’s hives died off. Now the goal is to keep annual bee deaths to under 18% of a total colony. That’s a shock compared with past expectations, according to Bret Adee, whose grandfather Richard founded the company in 1957. “If I had losses over 5% for the winter, I was upset,” Adee tells Forbes. “Just absolutely upset. Now? Wow.”
In 1990, Adee wanted to carve out a niche for himself in the family business, so at 29 years old he trucked some beehives to California, where pollinating quickly became a highly profitable part of Adee Honey Farms. Pollinating almonds there every year makes up roughly two-thirds of the firm’s annual revenue and the foundation of its profits. Like its name says, the company still sells honey, a particularly low-margin product that can be impacted by fraud when cheap fakes flood the market.
A bee colony contains roughly 60,000 honey bees. A colony is typically made up of two hive boxes, or about 16 frames of bees.
“It’s just like a lot of the farming in the U.S.,” Adee says. “The margins are so thin that it’s all done on scale now.”
Wonderful has scale in everything it does — for instance, it’s one of the country’s biggest private owners of water infrastructure — and it’s known for developing bold consumer brands. But so far there’s no Wonderful Honey on supermarket shelves. According to Yraceburu, Wonderful does sell the sweet stuff wholesale to brokers who bottle it under other labels. The company is also assessing all the kinds of bee-related products they could sell, like antioxidant-rich propolis or beeswax.
Die-offs are always a concern. Pesticides and other agricultural chemicals, parasites, new diseases and a warming planet continue to hurt America’s bee population. It’s a vulnerability that has far-reaching repercussions. Of the 100 top flowering crops that are edible, 80 are pollinated by honey bees. There aren’t many wild and native pollinators left. The bees that survive are increasingly corporately owned.
A lot of them are descendants of European bees that first arrived in Virginia’s Jamestown colony in 1622. The British used them to cross-pollinate the fruits and vegetables they brought with them. The most productive crops grown by Native Americans, like corn and tomatoes, didn’t need European bees. But those weren’t the crops the British farmers raised and propagated, and today that’s why the European bees are so crucial to America’s food supply.
Big operations such as Wonderful are able to treat the bees well. The Resnicks and other large beekeepers try to prevent disease during their lifecycle by keeping the bees cool. For three months every winter, the insects are stored in temperature-controlled warehouses, which extends their lifecycle. During the summer, after their pollinating work is done, many of the nation’s bees hang out in the northern prairies because there’s vast ranchland with wildflowers, and also because there’s the smallest amount of agricultural pesticides and herbicides. Recent drought, however, has hurt beekeepers that rely on the vibrant pastures. “Everybody’s been primarily burning equity,” Adee says. “Almost 90%, maybe more, of the industry probably burned personal equity, either savings or honey that was sold that was their savings account.”
Even with the advantages bestowed by size, the bigger beekeepers haven’t had an easy time. About 15 years ago, after a wave of mergers and acquisitions, many of the new operations failed.
Roger Starks, an insurance consultant with Marsh McLennan’s Sioux Falls, South Dakota branch who just retired after 51 years in the business, says he watched big companies buy mom-and-pop operations and roll them up, only to sell them back to the same people a couple years later for less than 25% of what they paid. Starks says the firms failed because the owners didn’t take a hands-on approach.
“Agriculture is truly a way of life,” Starks tells Forbes. “This vertical integration deal works great – if you know what you’re doing.”
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