The Almond and the Honeybee
Every January, almond growers in California are busy preparing for the most critical time of the year: almond bloom. Meanwhile, here in Florida, we’re preparing our honeybees for a cross-country journey.
Our bees play an important role in California almond production. Almond trees require cross-pollination, using pollen from different varieties of almond trees. As the bees flit from tree to tree, the hairs of their legs, heads, and bodies become covered in pollen, spreading it to multiple trees throughout the orchard. This process initiates the growth of an almond, otherwise, the almond bloom would just be a spectacular display of flowers with no crop. There are many other factors to successful almond production including temperature, moisture, soil nutrients, and disease prevention, but the honeybee’s role is crucial to success. In California, there are about 1.25 million acres of almond trees, with each acre needing about two hives for pollination. With each colony housing 30-60,000 bees, that’s a lot of bees!
Although we take the utmost care to keep the bees alive and healthy, about 5% of our colonies will die during this 6-week excursion. Honeybee colony loss is common over the winter months as temperatures drop, and there is little food to forage. Since the early 2000s, honeybee colony loss rates among all beekeepers has significantly increased due to pests, disease, and stress. We adjust our honeybee care to make sure our colony loss is as low as possible.
The life cycle of a bee is only about 6 to 8 weeks, with many new bees emerging during the California trip. In fact, most of the bees that return to us were eggs in California and will return to our farm to produce honey!
A Bee Convention
It might seem funny to imagine our bees taking a road trip every January, but this time of year, about 64% of the nation's honeybee population is concentrated in California. The increased demand for honeybee pollination services is largely a result of the ever-increasing acreage of almond trees and an increase in the mortality rate of honeybee colonies over the winter. With the increase in the difficulty and cost of keeping honeybees and the increasing number of acres of almond trees to be pollinated, the competition among growers to contract with beekeepers for pollination is relatively high. We have been participating in the almond pollination process for three years. In our first year, we sent about 400 colonies, and this year, we have over 1,000 colonies doing what they do best out in the orchards!
Successful planning for this process begins months in advance. Disease and pest management and prevention are a major focus over the winter. To ensure that only hives that will both perform the pollination service effectively and survive the journey make the cut, the hives are hand selected in January based on the strength of the colony and the amount of food they have managed to store. Our bees are our livelihood, so we treat them to first-class travel accommodations on semi trucks with flatbed trailers that are carefully netted to keep them from wandering off and getting lost.
Upon arrival, the bees are unloaded at designated spots in and around the orchard. This is most often done in the hours of darkness when the bees tend to stay in their hives rather than trying to fly. Our bees get spread in groups of around 24 colonies in as many as 40 locations throughout the almond groves.
The bees stay in California until the middle of March, dining on their Florida food stores, and hopefully, if the weather cooperates, a strong almond nectar and pollen flow, for sustenance. Though almonds are quite delicious and almond pollen is very nutritious, the almond honey is actually quite bitter. This works out well because the bees often eat most or all of it before arriving back home.
Bees Are A Vital Resource
The U.S. provides 80% of the world’s almond supply, producing over 2 billion pounds of almonds each year. In 2017, almonds generated $5.6 billion, and the honey market generated $2.1 million. Both markets are dependent on honeybees for successful production.
In addition to almonds and honey, bees pollinate 70 of the 100 crop species that feed more than 90% of the world. Although other insects contribute to the pollination process, no other insect is as effective. Bees collect more pollen and visit more plants due to their large colony size and their dependency on pollen for food.
What would happen if we did not have bees? Well, our diet would be severely limited in options. We could lose all of the plants that bees pollinate, and all the animals that rely on those plants. Honeybees are a vital resource and we are proud to participate in helping them thrive.
We love our bees and their work is never done. From Florida to California, our bees live for the bloom, not only taking to the skies for pollen but to the highways as well.