Part I: Professional pollinators proceed to California, to service almond crops
Record-breaking snow and low temperatures this winter have Americans dreaming of spring. Farmers and beekeepers share those reveries and note that warmer weather hearkens the arrival of their busy season.
One of the earliest crops, almonds, is simultaneously the most important one for commercial beekeepers. Almonds depend on bees for pollination, and yet explosive growth of this bumper crop is taxing the very creatures the industry needs to thrive.
California’s Central Valley produces over 80 percent of the world’s almonds. Every year, this profitable crop consistently ranks among the top three most valuable commodities in the Golden State’s considerable agriculture industry.
Almonds were worth over $4 billion in 2012, and this boom is poised to continue, despite the drought and other problems. New food products and the expansion of overseas markets have increased demand to the point that no young almond trees are available for purchase until 2016.
Of course, demand for almonds translates into demand for pollination. Enter the commercial beekeeper. Every spring, sixty percent of all honeybees in the United States are transported to the almond groves to pollinate the crop.
For beekeepers providing pollination services, almonds are the year’s biggest and first customer of every growing season. Pollinating California almonds in February and March is among beekeeping’s biggest challenges.
A major problem is that bee colonies, especially those from northern states, lack sufficient time to emerge from their heat-conserving winter cluster. To meet this challenge, some beekeepers maintain 20,000 to 30,000 hives. Each one requires careful inspection for devastating diseases and parasites – a meticulous task impractical at such a scale.
Making their task more difficult is the fact that beekeepers are trying to impose large-scale agricultural methods on an animal whose husbandry practices have been virtually unchanged since the nineteenth century. The larger the commercial beekeeper’s stock, the harder it is not only to tend, but to recover from financial setback in the form of lost bees.
Almond growers will need 1.5 million hives this year, estimates Colorado beekeeper Lyle Johnston. He brokers bees for California growers, while also tending hives himself.
“It takes almost all the commercial bees in the United States,” to pollinate the almond crop, Johnston told the Post-Independent, a Glenwood Springs, Colorado newspaper.
Unfortunately, almond demand for bees has led many commercial beekeepers to put their stocks at risk, because the payoff can amount to half an individual keeper’s yearly profit.