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Bees for Hire: California Almonds Become Migratory Colonies’ Biggest Task

Emily Wilder
Aug 17 2018

The growth of almond orchards has made the Central Valley the new center of gravity for migratory beekeeping. With this shift has come new concerns over the health and safety of bee colonies, both on the road, and while they forage in California’s crops.

Strawberries under cultivation – and under wraps – by the Pacific coast outsude of Emiliano Zapata, Baja California.

Pollination station A honeybee box in front of almond trees near Modesto in February 2018. Courtesy of Alice Cummings via Flickr

By Emily Wilder

In early February, drivers along Interstate 5 through California’s agricultural center in the San Joaquin Valley might see, interspersed among endless rows of almond trees, thousands of white boxes, each holding a beehive. Behind this postcard image is the underlying story of how these bees got there and why. Each box represents two things. First, a long journey across the country for a colony of honeybees. Second, a unique – and potentially revolutionary – symbiosis between America’s migratory beekeeping industry and California’s expanding almond industry.

Chart showing growth of Almond acreage in California.

The World’s Largest Pollination Event

In 1997, California almonds covered fewer than 500,000 acres. Twenty years later, almond orchards cover more than 1,330,000 acres, up seven percent in the last year alone. Today, the state grows more than 80 percent of the world’s supply. Every year, the arrival of the bees to pollinate almond flowers in California orchards – primarily in five counties between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area – marks the start of a brief frenzy of activity. It is the world’s largest pollination event.

Almonds are California’s most important crop, valued at $5.33 billion in 2015. Their blooming period is the earliest and one of the shortest among California crops. It begins in late January and lasts less than a month. Bees visit each almond bud grown in these 250,000 almond orchards once or more; pollination of each acre requires two hives. This is a task local pollinators cannot handle without help.

There are about 500,000 resident hives in California. The almond industry needs 2 million, two-thirds of the nation’s commercial supply. Almonds’ explosive growth, combined with environmental change, particularly pervasive droughts, have tapped out the supply of hives in the entire West. So almonds draw beekeepers from around the country to earn record high prices per colony.


Almonds’ explosive growth, combined with environmental change, particularly pervasive droughts, have tapped out the supply of hives in the entire West. So almonds draw beekeepers from around the country to earn record high prices per colony.

The growth of almond orchards has made the Central Valley the new center of gravity for migratory beekeeping. With this shift has come new concerns over the health and safety of bee colonies, both on the road, and while they forage in California’s crops. The worries are born of a decade’s worth of frighteningly high bee deaths known as “colony collapse disorder.”

A Grueling Annual Migration in the Back of a Truck

A recent report published by Scientific American, titled “The Mind-Boggling Math of Migratory Beekeeping,” details the mechanics of this road-show honeybee business. The nearly yearlong routes they take around the nation begin in Texas or Florida at the beginning of the year. From here, they are loaded into the beds of semi-trucks and moved to California’s almond orchards around Valentine’s Day. They stay for less than a month, then spend the rest of the spring and summer traveling up the West Coast or toward the Dakotas. Finally, they head South and East to rest before beginning the cycle again.

The time they spend in California is particularly important. Around 85 percent of all commercial colonies in the United States visit California’s almonds.

The Scientific American article’s subheading takes a particularly pessimistic perspective on the relationship between almonds and bees: “31 billion honeybees plus 810,000 acres of almond trees equals 700 billion almonds—and one looming agricultural crisis.” But experts like Jay Evans and Gordon Wardell, who spent their careers working toward bee development and health, challenge the premise that the almond industry and migratory beekeeping together represent a “looming agricultural crisis.”

They paint a very different picture, arguing that the blooming of millions of almond trees and the transcontinental movement of millions of bees does not put the bees at particular risk; instead, it has made the two industries “kind of co-dependent,” according to Jay Evans, a bee health researcher with the USDA. Because the bees are essential to the success of an almond crop, is in the interests of the almond growers, he said, to ensure the honeybees’ health. And they are trying to do so, Evans said: growers and beekeepers work each other and with the scientific community “to find [agricultural] methods that are safe for honeybees.”

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Ludovick via Flickr

Bob Curtis, the Director of Agricultural Affairs for the Almond Board of California, who also oversees research conducted for the University of California and the federal Department of Agriculture, has seen this relationship develop, particularly over the past decade. While the average beekeeper loses around 35 to 40 percent of their hives per year, he says that “beekeeping is plastic, in the sense that beekeepers will work real hard to re-queen and re-establish these hives.”

The blooming of millions of almond trees and the transcontinental movement of millions of bees does not put the bees at particular risk; instead, it has made the two industries “kind of co-dependent,” according to Jay Evans, a bee health researcher with the USDA.

Commercial Honeybee Populations Stabilize

Data indicates that these efforts have been partially succeeded: commercial honeybee populations numbers have not only remained constant, but have actually increased slightly in recent years. This is thanks to, in part, the relationships between the almond grower and the scientific communities, which have produced projects like Seeds for Bees, providing growers with supplemental nutritional forages to plant in their orchards. These supplemental plants are where bees can feed before and after the almond bloom and boost bee health as well as crop yield.

Scientific studies conducted on insecticides and fungicides have also informed almond growers’ efforts to make their orchards attractive and safe for migratory honeybees. The Almond Board’s guidebook, Best Management Practices, compiles this research in a list of safe growing methods which circulates throughout the almond grower community.

Collaboration between the scientific community and almond growers has been the goal of Gordon Wardell, a bee researcher for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Nature Conservancy, and most recently, the Wonderful Company, a Los Angeles-based agricultural and industrial conglomerate. Operating at the nexus of almond growing and beekeeping, Wardell, affectionately known as “Gordie” by many in almond and honeybee circles, has insisted on autonomy in his work to allow him to make the almond industry the safest crop for bees.

In his former position as the Wonderful Company’s “bee guy,” Wardell found that in many of his projects, growers cooperate willingly, for “why pay $400 per acre for pollination if they are working against the bees?” This was true in the growers’ response to a misapplication of pesticides that killed 80,000 hives in 2014, when Wardell worked with them to identify the problem and implement safer methods. Wardell has also encouraged growers to take part in Seeds for Bees, urged beekeepers to register their colonies with the county, and pushed both parties to engage with each other.

Wardell’s sole concern about the migratory beekeeping business is the stress that being trucked from coast to coast puts on already vulnerable honeybee colonies. “There is a three percent chance of losing queens every time they put bees on a truck,” he said. And there are other risks, like nutritional stress and exhaustion.

Wardell’s concern stems from the potential threats to bee health on the road. When traveling, the bees are more susceptible to viruses triggered by cold snaps. They are also often worked nearly year round, without a hibernation period. And when there is insufficient natural forage for the bees, they are held in their shipping containers and have to be fed sugar water and protein patties. The impact becomes apparent generations down the road, Wardell said, because the continual need to reorient decreases the number of broods raised by the hive.

Suspicion Lands on Pesticide Exposure

However, the vision of synergy and cooperation for honeybee and crop health faces other hurdles as well. Thomas Theobald, a retired, self-identified “community beekeeper,” and the last county bee inspector in state of Colorado, is involved in a group that successfully sued the Environmental Protection Agency for its approval of neonicotinoids, a form of pesticide that has, he argues, hurts bees and the environment.

Neonicotinoids act on the nervous systems of invertebrates and are water soluble. This means they can be absorbed by plants through treated soils. Seeds are also treated with this pesticide; the molecules of the plant itself contain the pesticide.

“We’re told today that the use of neonicotinoids is about 4 million pounds, which sounds really good...But here’s the fiction,” Theobald said. Given the chemical’s persistence in groundwater and soil, he believes it presents a substantial threat. In April, the European Union banned most uses of neonicotinoids. Bayer, a major manufacturer, fought the move, arguing the chemical is not harmful to bees when used as directed.

Theobald agrees that honeybees only seem to be doing as well as they are because of the immense effort and resources both beekeepers and growers put into keeping colonies healthy. In fact, almond growers do not use neonicotinoids at all. However, California corn and soybeans get a fresh dose of the chemical a year, and Theobald is concerned that honeybees are exposed with foraging in any California agriculture.

“Many beekeepers come back [from almonds] and say their colonies are doing just fine, but many more come back having to spend the rest of the year recovering,” he said. “And they return to California even with this risk each year because it is where the money is” – $2 billion a year, in fact, a figure calculated by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban Ecology and Sustainability.

Growers of other crops like apple, prunes, and berries are following almond growers’ lead, showing that the cooperative relationship between growers and beekeepers may be contagious. This relationship proves that everyone benefits from practices developed in collaboration among all concerned parties – the growers, the migratory beekeepers, the scientific communities, and perhaps even consumers and citizens. Certainly, the relationship between a road-show honeybee and a California almond shows what can be achieved with collaboration.

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Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

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