Did you hear that buzz in California's almond orchards?
It takes about two colonies per acre to pollinate California's 1.2 million acres of almonds. That's about 2.5 million bee colonies trucked here from throughout the country.
And now the 2020 almond pollination season, which began around Valentine's Day, is ending, not with a buzz, but with somewhat of a bang as growers worry about whether they'll have enough bees for next season.
In a Jan. 22 article in Ag Alert, assistant editor Christine Souza covered the situation well. In noting that California has some 1.2 million bearing acres of almond trees, she pointed out: "As another 300,000 almond acres come into production in the next few years, beekeepers and farmers say an additional 600,000 beehives will be needed for pollination. Achieving that could be somewhat daunting, as beekeepers report annual bee losses due to challenges such as reduced forage, the Varroa mite and pesticide-related issues."
In a forecast article published Jan. 6 in West Coast Nut on "2020 Almond Pollination Market: Economic Outlook and Other Considerations," Brittney Goodrich, assistant Cooperative Extension specialist, UC Davis Department of of Agricultural and Resource Economics, wrote that the total yield in pounds per acre is "projected at 1,880, down 10 percent from 2019 (United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), 2019). Not all of this was due to poor pollination, growers also experienced less than ideal weather conditions throughout the rest of the growing season."
Goodrich also mentioned that:
- "As of October 15, 2019, almond prices were between $2.63 to $2.98 per pound depending on the variety. Prices have remained fairly steady in this range since 2016 (Champetier, Lee, and Sumner, 2019). Almond returns per acre have also remained fairly steady since 2016, though these returns seem small when compared with the 2013-2015 time period with almond prices well above $3 per pound."
- "Pollination expenses as a percentage of operating costs have increased from 6.7 percent in 1998 to 20 percent in 2016 (Champetier, Lee, and Sumner, 2019)."
- "As expected, counties in the San Joaquin Valley have the highest amount of planted acreage."
- "With the exception of Contra Costa and Sacramento counties in Northern California, increases as a percentage of bearing acreage by county range from 0.2 percent to 6.5 percent of total bearing acreage. Contra Costa and Sacramento counties each saw increases over 40 percent, but combine for a total planted acreage of 217 acres in 2018."
- According to the California State Beekeepers' Association, "average almond pollination fees have gone up around $5 per colony per year since 2017. The range in fees seems to have grown over time, in 2019 there is more than a $60 difference per colony between the lowest and highest fee reported. From talking with others in the industry, the average fee of $195 in 2019 may be on the lower side. Fees for a majority of colonies likely ranged from $200 to $220 per colony in 2019."
Meanwhile, take a look at the honey bees foraging on an almond near the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, UC Davis campus.
You've heard of late bloomers.
How about early bloomers?
A trip to the Benica (Calif.) State Recreational Park on Sunday yielded quite a surprise: a solo blossom on a bare almond tree.
Almonds don't usually start blooming until around Valentine's Day.
Almonds are big business in California. "The 2013-14 crop is estimated at 1.85 billion pounds from 810,000 bearing acres," wrote Christine Souza in the Dec. 11 edition of Ag Alert.
Souza, who covered the 41st annual meeting of the Almond Board of California, wrote that "Near-record production, higher prices and room for increased export opportunities lead leaders in the almond business to forecast continued growth, with optimistic trends outweighing concerns about water supplies, increasing production costs and onerous government regulations." Read her full article.
Meanwhile, while buds turn to blossoms and blossoms turn into food for hungry honey bees, Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, keeps busy answering bee/almond questions. This year marks his 38th year as an Extension apiculturist. He will be retiring in June.
One of the questions recently posed to him: "Do most commercial beekeepers in California specialize in a certain area of beekeeping such as honey production, pollination services, queen bees, etc., or do most do a little of all of these things?"
"Most commercial beekeepers in California try to place as many of their colonies as they can in almond pollination," Mussen responded. "That $150 or so makes up a large portion of the total costs of keeping a colony alive for a year--about $220. After almonds, most of the commercial beekeepers (bee breeders) in the Sacramento Valley turn to raising queen bees and bulk adult bees for the most part, with some further pollination contracts to keep their 'spare' bees making some income. The northern California beekeepers will hardly ever produce an income-generating honey crop, unless they move their colonies out of state, which some do. Most of the bee breeders produce no reportable honey."
On the other hand, the San Joaquin Valley commercial beekeepers do attempt to earn their income after almonds from various honey sources and pollination contracts, Mussen says. "Before most crops are ready to be pollinated, the beekeepers swamp the San Joaquin citrus belt to make some honey and not have to feed their bees. There are so many resident and visiting colonies down there that the honey crop has become very small. Except for alfalfa seed pollination, most commercially pollinated crops do not produce honey. Beekeepers do place their colonies near cotton, sometimes, for a honey crop, but it is risky. The central valley beekeepers can attain the state average of 60 pounds of honey per colony, if the rains promote growth of the sage and buckwheat plants growing in the hills around the valley.
"The southern California beekeepers usually average the best honey crops--closer to 100 pounds per colony. There still is a significant amount of citrus down there, and quite a few wildflowers. Rainfall remains an extremely important factor."
And declining bee health? What about colony collapse disorder (CCD)?
"CCD seems to be a combination of stresses that, sometimes, becomes overwhelming to the bees," he says. "These are the contributing leading factors: malnutrition, parasitism by Varroa destructor, infections with Nosema ceranae, infections by one or more of the 22 known honey bee viruses, exposure to pesticides, and vagaries of weather, especially cold weather. Commonly, colonies that are collapsing are heavily infected by Nosema and one or more of the viruses."
Hear the buzz in the California almond orchards?
It's almost pollination time.
The season usually begins around Feb. 1. This year California has some 750,000 acres of almonds, and each acre requires two bee colonies to pollinate.
That's 1.2 million colonies needed to pollinate the almonds, according to honey bee guru Eric Mussen, Extension apiculturist with the UC Davis Department of Entomology.
Since California doesn't have that many colonies--the number is around 500,000--the remainder must come from beekeepers outside the state.
Christine Souza of Ag Alert, the weekly newspaper for California agriculture, wrote in the Jan. 19th edition that pollinating the state's $3.2 billion crop is not without problems: thieves steal bee hives. Beekeeper Brian Long, Madera County, reported losing 400 colonies last month, a total loss of $120,000, Souza said.
To thwart thieves, beekeepers brand their names and phone numbers on their boxes. (We know a beekeeper who also brands his driver's license.)
It's a good idea to store hives behind enclosed and locked gates, the Ag Alert article noted, and "to give nearby property owners descriptions of your vehicles so that they can report any suspicious activity or vehicles."
Perhaps those Hollywood producers looking for story ideas could take what's happening in the bee yards and film another version of "The Sting."
UC Davis Cooperative Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen, a member of the UC Davis Department of Entomology faculty for 32 years, says this looks like a challenging year for almond growers.
There's this water problem. Think "drought."
There's this honey bee crisis. Think "bee health" and "declining bee population."
Then there's these increased production costs. Think "tanked economy."
Christine Souza, assistant editor of Ag Alert, published by the California Farm Bureau Federation, wrote an excellent article in the Jan. 28th edition about the problems almond growers and beekeepers alike are facing.
Headlined "Challenges Face Almond Growers and Beekeepers," the article began:
A reduction in almond prices, limited water availability, increased production costs and the declining health of bees may all influence what happens during this year's almond bloom, impacting both almond growers and beekeepers.
Speaking at the Almond Board of California annual meeting last month, board member Dan Cummings warned his audience that this spring could be "dicey" for almond growers and beekeepers alike.
"Bees are competing for almond growers' money the same as water, fertilizer, fuel and all of our other inputs, at a time when the price of almonds has dropped. So we will be rationalizing where we go with our bees," said Cummings, who farms almonds in Chico and is co-owner of a full-service beekeeping operation. "We will be fallowing some other crops to direct water to almonds and perhaps abandoning almond orchards."
As a result, he said he believes many growers may reduce the amount of honeybee colonies that they place into the orchards for pollination during bloom, to save money.
And all this is happening right now. We saw the first almond blossoms this week in Yolo and Solano counties, a sure sign that spring can't be far behind.
Mussen told Souza that beekeepers are most concerned about the health of their bees, "whether they operate one colony in the backyard or thousands of colonies throughout the country."
"Money is important," Mussen told her, "because it costs nearly $150 to keep a commercial colony alive and productive over a year. Without that income the bees would be lost and the beekeeper would be out of business."
Get ready for the bumpy ride. Take a deep breath. And, as the bumpersticker says: Get in, sit down, and hold on tight.
This may be like Disneyland's Big Thunder rollercoaster that twists through mine shafts, bat caves and caverns.
And watch for the falling rocks.