As we gear up for pollination season 2020, it’s worth looking back 20 years ago, before almond pollination grew into an industry that generates half a billion dollars each year. As I dug into some research on the past 2 decades of almond pollination, I uncovered all the elements of a compelling story: success and failure, risk and danger, thousand-mile journeys, moments of treachery and deceit, and of course, the pursuit of riches. What was once just a collection of gentlemen’s agreements between good old boys in the valley, almond pollination evolved into a modern-day gold rush. And it came together in our lifetime. You see, almond pollination is a relatively recent phenomenon—at least to the scale we see today. Nowadays, more than 2 million hives make the trek to California’s Central Valley each February, where they can fetch an average of almost $200 per hive. This of post explores the making of the 9-figure industry that emerged in the past two decades.
AN INDUSTRY 2 DECADES IN THE MAKING
Let’s hop into the time machine and journey back to the turn of the century, with pollination prophet Joe Traynor and our favorite lab-coat-wearing beekeeper Randy Oliver as our tour guides:
2000 - Joe Traynor (link) One of Joe Traynor’s earliest articles on Beesource.com, this January 2000 post gives us a glimpse of what pollination was like at the turn of the century. Though this article isn’t entirely focused on almond pollination, Joe gives us a good idea of where the industry was at the time: “Almond growers pay dearly for their bees – rental fees are up to $50/colony.” Joe also offers some foresight into where the industry’s headed: “without almond pollination income, many US. beekeepers would be out of business.”
But, in a scathing editor’s note, beekeeper Oren Best couldn’t let Joe’s comment go unchallenged. Kicking off by suggesting that “Joe Traynor doesn’t get out much,” (yikes) Oren argues that “honey production is still the back bone of the bee industry” and “the pollination industry is not wrapped around the almond farms.” This beekeeper’s perspective truly goes to show how forward-thinking Joe was 20 years back. Hindsight’s 20/20, but I wonder how Oren would respond today.
2005 - Joe Traynor (link) Published November 2005, Joe authors this article in response to the Great Bee Shortage from earlier that year. Just 5 years after the article above, almond pollination has changed radically. In 2000, Joe scoffed at the idea of growers paying $50 per hive. Now he tells us that prices are in the $100-150 range. Joe identifies three driving forces behind these price hikes: fear (from growers), greed (from beekeepers) and the climbing price of almonds.
Word had spread among beekeepers nationwide that there’s an opportunity to take advantage of the soon-to-be wealthy almond growers, at least that’s how Joe seems to tell it. This chart from the 2016 Almond Almanac tells a compelling story in the mid 2000’s, and it lends credence to Joe’s theory about beekeepers jacking up their prices after 2005.
Joe wraps up by offering his prediction for the 2006 season, and whether growers should prepare for another bee shortage:
“Will there be a shortage of bee colonies in 2006? It depends on how you define ‘bee colony.’ There has been a shortage of strong bee colonies (defined as 8 or more frames of bees) each and every year since almonds were first planted in California 100 years ago; 2006 will be no different if two strong colonies per acre is the accepted standard. There will likely be the requisite number of bee boxes to cover CA’s 570,000 bearing acres in 2006 but the content of these boxes won’t be known until almond bloom commences in early February.”
In other words, yeah, roughly 1.2 million bee boxes will make their way to the almonds—the real question is whether there will be quality bees in those boxes.
2007 - Randy Oliver (link) Randy's first post about almond pollination is a long one, and it covers everything from industry history to economics to colony health. I’ll keep my summary brief but the whole article is excellent and I suggest you read it through. Randy starts off with a fascinating oral history of almond pollination, from a friendly exchange of services to a cut-throat, hundred-million-dollar industry. In the good old days, beekeepers would ask growers to place their bees in the orchards as a favor, to build their hives up early in the season. As plantings increased, beekeepers “had the audacity” to charge growers as much as 25¢ per colony! Madness! By the ‘80’s, when Randy got involved, he could fetch $12 per hive. Steady increases over the next 20 years brought the price to $45 per hive in 2004. Then, the Great Bee Shortage of 2005 caused prices to surge to $80 per hive. 2006 is when Randy’s telling differs from Joe’s. The way Joe tells it, as almond prices climbed in late 2005, beekeepers were overcome by greed and demanded a larger slice of the pie. But Randy suggests that it was in fact the almond growers who reacted to the high prices. Hoping to maximize yield by maximizing pollination, growers “started bidding against each other to ensure that if there was a shortage, their orchard would not go without.” Two interesting ways of looking at the 2006 hive price surge, and it’s likely that both theories have elements of truth.
Then Randy gets into the new demand for colony strength inspectors—something that had never been necessary since beekeepers and growers had previously enjoyed a healthy working relationship. He mentions that once hive prices shot up, some beekeepers started placing colony-less boxes (dead-outs) in the almonds filled with frames of honey, so that robbing bees would appear to a grower like just another lively hive. This led to the creation of “frame strength” as a metric designed to standardize the size of a colony for pollination contracts.
I had a lot of fun researching and writing this piece. Even though it's one of our longest-ever posts here on The Bee Word, there was a lot more content that didn't make the final cut. I'll be converting the extra stuff into a few more posts in celebration of the 2020 season. Big thanks to Joe and Randy for their documentation on the history behind almond pollination.