Every January, almond growers in California prepare for their annual almond blossom festivals. Meanwhile, here in Florida, we’re preparing our bee colonies for a cross-country journey.
Our bees play an important role in California almond cultivation, pollinating the blossoms to keep the trees strong. It might seem funny to imagine our bees taking a road trip every January, but the majority of commercial beekeepers in the U.S. participate in this national event to assist in California almond pollination.
Safety in Numbers
At this time of year, about 75% of the nation's honey bee population is concentrated in California. It all started when 80,000 California bee colonies suffered losses from death or deformity in 2014. In some cases, entire colonies were lost.
These incidents were tied to the combined use of insecticides and fungicides. With this decline in local bee colonies, California's almond growers were forced to hire “bee rentals.”
We have been participating in the Bakersfield, California almond pollination process for three years. In our first year, we sent about 400 colonies, and this year, we are looking at about 1,000 colonies! Our bees get spread in groups of around 24 colonies at a time in as many as 40 locations throughout the almond groves.
The Pollination Process
Almond trees require cross-pollination, using pollen from different varieties of trees. 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 about 20,000 bees, that’s a lot of bees!
As the bees flit from tree to tree the hairs of their feet, heads, bodies and pollen baskets become covered in pollen, spreading it throughout the orchard. That’s where the term “the bee’s knees” comes from.
Bee travel requires a lot of planning. Our bees have to be cared for with feeding and disease treatment before we select the best hives for the three- to four-day journey.
Almond blossoms are open during the day and bloom for four weeks. Once pollination is complete, our bees come home. The whole process takes about 4 to 6 weeks. To avoid loss of bee colonies, almond growers will not spray during the blossom season, keeping our bees safe from harm.
One of the most important steps pre-transport is ensuring we choose the strongest colonies for shipment. That is because the nectar from the almond orchards is not enough to keep the bees fed. We select the hives with the most food stores to ensure they survive their pollen vacation.
Our bees are our livelihood, so we treat them to first-class travel accommodations using safe semi flat-bed trucks that are carefully netted to protect the bees.
Upon arrival, the bees are unloaded at designated spots in the dark of night while they are sleeping.
The bees stay in California until March, dining on their Florida food stores for sustenance. In decent weather, the bees will have an additional treat from almond blossom nectar. Any honey and propolis the bees produce during their stay are left for them as almond honey is too bitter for consumers.
The Circle of Life
Although we take the utmost care to keep the bees alive, about 10% of the colonies die in the pollination process, which is better than the average expected loss rate of about 15%. Deaths are natural in bee colonies between October and April as temperatures drop, and there’s no food to forage.
Since the early 2000s, loss rates have almost doubled due to pests, disease, and stress. We adjust our honey bee care to make sure bee loss is kept to a minimum.
The life cycle of a bee is only about 6 to 8 weeks, with many new bees born during the California trip. In fact, there can be one to two new generations born in California that will return to our farm to produce honey!
The Journey HomeHoney bees have a very busy schedule that includes travel to almond orchards in the winter, and honey production in the spring. Many beekeepers will ship their colonies south for the almond season and then north as various orchards such as apples begin to blossom.
There’s a good reason we do not just sell our bees to California farms. The California climate is too dry and arid for bees to survive long past the time their Florida food stores run out. Plus, we depend on them to come home to begin producing wildflower honey for our farm. It all works out well for the farmers, the beekeepers, and the bees.
Bees Are Big BusinessThe 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 honey bees for successful production.
In addition to almonds and honey, bees pollinate more than 90% of the food crops 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 dependency on pollen for food.
What would happen if we did not have bees? Well in China they pollinate by hand with paint brushes.
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.