Almond Pollination

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Almond Pollination and Honeybees: Past and Future

Back around the turn of the 21st Century, when we started Wildflower Meadows, the almond pollination season, believe it or not, was not that big of a deal.  Sure, California beekeepers, as well as commercial beekeepers from many of the other neighboring states, routinely moved their bees into the California almond groves in early February.  Back then, however, the prices received for almond pollination weren’t all that high, and the pressure that both almond growers and beekeepers felt towards this annual event was relatively low.  After all, the almond acreage wasn’t nearly the immense size that it is today, and the health of honeybee population was much healthier then when compared to today.

The economics of that time reflect this state clearly.  The rental price per colony was below $50 per colony in 2000 (compared to around $200 per colony today).  Some beekeepers thought that they were receiving a great deal when the price eventually reached $50 per colony in the early 2000’s, and were excited about the “easy money;” whereas others were not particularly motivated by even that relatively generous price.  In any case, there seemed to always be plenty of bees and commercial beekeepers to get the job done.

However, when we fast-forward to today, we see a completely different picture.  Between the turn of the century and today, immense changes have taken place, both with almonds and with honeybees.  Almond consumption has exploded in the last two decades.  Today, most grocery stores feature entire coolers filled with half-gallon containers of almond milk, almond yogurt and almond ice cream, with grocery store shelves full of granola and energy bars packed with almonds, not to mention the many varieties of the nut itself.  Almond consumption in the United States alone has risen to an unbelievable two pounds per person, with California producing 80% of the world’s supply of almonds!  Of course, almond acreage has reflected this upsurge in demand with now more than 1.4 million acres of almonds planted in California; with that number increasing every year.

At the same time, as we all know, the plight of the honeybees has grown more woeful every year.  Colony collapse wasn’t even a term in 2000, varroa mites were a relatively new phenomenon, and pesticide losses, though certainly a factor, were nothing like today.  Annual honeybee losses are currently approaching 40% per year, with this trajectory appearing to grow worse every season.

As a result, the stress that almond growers face in obtaining sufficient bees grows greater and greater.  Whereas, in the past, the bees in California and neighboring states could pretty much pollinate the entire crop with relative ease; today, bees need to be trucked into California from as far away as Florida and New York to cover the rising need of pollination services.  What’s more, whereas in the past, the pollination could be covered by commercial beekeepers alone, now even small-scale beekeepers with relatively fewer colonies are entering into the picture, simply because there are not enough commercially managed bee colonies to get the job done.  Keep in mind that each acre of almonds requires approximately two colonies of honeybees to pollinate the crop.  In 2020, these 1.4 million acres will require approximately 2.8 million colonies of honeybees – or about 80% of the entire US population of honeybees.  Yes, really, 80% of the entire population of honeybees here in the United States!

With almond growers continuing to plant more and more acres of trees every year, and honeybee losses continuing to climb at the same time, we appear to be not too far from reaching a tipping point of sorts.  At some point, it appears that there may not be enough honeybees to pollinate the entirety of the annual US almond crop, and unfortunately, that tipping point may be coming soon!

Migratory Beekeeping

Some of our largest customers at Wildflower Meadows are migratory beekeepers.  Migratory beekeepers in the United States begin each new year in California pollinating almonds.  After that their paths diverge.  Some move their bees to orange groves to produce orange blossom honey.  Other beekeepers continue on to Oregon and Washington to pollinate cherries, cranberries, and apples.  By summer, many of these same beekeepers can be found in the Great Plains producing clover honey.  In the fall and winter, most of these very same beekeepers move their bees to warmer climates, like these here in Southern California, for over-wintering.

What makes all this possible is the existence of the vast United States interstate highway system, the availability of large flatbed trucks, and forklifts.  Migratory beekeepers keep their bees on pallets, usually four to a pallet – most usually known as “four-ways.”  The pallet doubles as a bottom board for the colonies, each of which are held in place by clips.  When it comes time to move the bees, the beekeeper can easily pick up a pallet of four colonies at a single time with a forklift.  Giant 18-wheel flatbed trucks are loaded with upwards of 400 colonies each.  Depending on the distance of the move, the load is netted down, and the truckers head on their way to more abundant pastures.

While migratory beekeeping benefits the bees in certain ways – the bees always find themselves in the midst of flowering crops or fields – it is hard on them in other ways.  The constant moving can lead to stress, which can result in queen losses.  And, keeping bees on pallets and in close quarters is not necessarily ideal because it can lead to the spread of mites and diseases.

Migratory beekeeping can also be hard on the beekeepers, who spend large amounts of the year away from home and family.  The life of a migratory beekeeper features many days on the road, staying in cheap hotels, eating fast food, and almost all of the of time worrying about planning and logistics.

Despite all this hardship, not enough praise can be offered to these brave beekeepers, and the contributions that they make to our food supply.  Without migratory beekeepers and their invaluable pollination services, our crops would suffer greatly – and we would too.  Migratory beekeepers are among the true heroes of beekeeping!

Photo courtesy of Allen’s Honey Company, Brawley, California, pollinators of almonds, melons, alfalfa and countless vegetable seed crops.

Which Direction Should Beehives Face For Best Pollination?

Many experienced beekeepers suggest that the entrance of a beehive ideally should face towards the south or to the east.  The southern exposure makes sense.  During the winter months – at least in the northern hemisphere – the sun sits low on the southern horizon.  The direct rays of sunshine on the entrance during the late fall and early spring enable a beehive to potentially gain some sunlight and extra flying hours.  An eastern exposure is also valuable because when facing east, the bees tend to get an earlier start on foraging throughout the season regardless of the angle of the sun.

Most of the time, however, it doesn’t matter all that much.  Many backyard and urban beekeepers are limited in their options on how and where to place their bees.  The truth is, bees are flexible, and most of the time they adjust well to the environment they are in.  When it comes to almond pollination – which is about to take place this month – almond orchard owners take no chances on the placement of the beehives that pollinate their groves.  Each year, a staggering 1.6 million colonies are rented for almond pollination.  Almond growers pay a small fortune to rent these bees, and they usually have specific requests on how they would like them placed.

One of the issues affecting bee pollination of almonds is weather.  Almonds are pollinated in February, a typical month of adverse weather not only in California, but most everywhere in the United States.  Honeybees do not fly until daytime temperatures exceeds 55º F.  Obviously, a grower cannot control the weather, but he or she can control the way that the rented colonies are placed in the grove so that the bees obtain as much sunshine as possible.  Growers typically request that beehives should face the sun, and the boxes should not be shaded by the trees or by other beehives.

To give an almond grower good value, the beekeeper should strive to place most beehive entrances facing due east or southeast, so that the bees catch the early morning sun and get off to an early start.  Also, a certain percentage of the colonies should face west.  The west-facing colonies will often fly right up to the evening hours, usually after the east-facing colonies have shut down.  Plus, on a day where rainy weather clears up later in the afternoon, the west-facing bees might still have time to venture out, while the east-facing colonies remain shut down.

Almond Pollination

Anyone in the business of growing almonds appreciates the challenges of pollination.  First, unlike most other fruits and nuts, almonds are not self-pollinating; they require cross-pollination from both another almond tree and another almond variety.  Second, unlike other crops, the almond crop is not thinned.  Therefore, the degree of pollination activity required is extraordinarily greater than in other crops.  Finally, from the perspective of the pollinating insect (typically a honeybee), the timing of almond bloom – mid-February, which is the lowest point of colony strength – could not be worse.

The best way for almond growers to ensure an abundant crop is to have as many working honey bees flying out of each rented colony as possible.  Successful pollination requires not just bees, but – most critically – strong and healthy bees.  For maximum pollination effectiveness, a grower needs bee colonies that are ideally eight frames in strength.  Research has shown that the number of pollinating bees delivered by an eight-frame colony when compared to a four-frame colony is not twice as many (as one would think); but rather, is more like four times as many!  In a weaker four-frame colony, a higher percentage of bees need to stay at home inside the box to keep the colony warm.

In order to be able to deliver strong and healthy bees for almonds, beekeepers need to have colonies headed by high quality queen bees, and preferably young queen bees as well.  Beekeepers also need to extensively feed their colonies both syrup and pollen substitute patties beginning in late summer, and continuing all the way through to at least Thanksgiving.  Fall bees that are headed for almond pollination should be tested for varroa mites, and treated if necessary.  With a disciplined regimen of regular feeding, monitoring and TLC, beekeepers can – and do! – produce what is seemingly unthinkable – an eight frame strong and healthy colony in the middle of February.

As this is being posted, Wildflower Meadows is sending our best “eight frame and greater” colonies on a journey to the almond orchards of Bakersfield, CA to help contribute our share to the world’s largest annual pollination event…