We learned from conversations with growers and beekeepers that timing is crucial for almond pollination. Bees need to arrive in the orchards just in time to start pollinating the almond blooms. As soon as blooms have been stripped of pollen, the bees need to leave the orchards to find the next food source. Growers need to treat their trees, but sprays must wait until the bees are on their way out.
All this talk about timing begs the question: what's the rush? It's all about food.
WHAT'S ON THE MENU?
California's Central Valley is a unique place. Consistent weather and reliable sunlight makes for an ideal agriculture climate. Wyatt describes it as America's true breadbasket.
The Central Valley produces an insane amount of food. More than half the country's fruits and vegetables are grown in this sun-kissed corridor. So why is this fertile oasis such a hostile ecosystem for bees?
Simply put, the food grown there is made to feed humans, not bees. Bees forage on plants that provide a steady source of pollen and nectar. Although almond blooms offer highly nutritious pollen for bees, there isn't much for bees to eat after pollination season.
WHERE CAN I FIND _____?
I wanted to quantify how much bee forage is around almond orchards, so I made a list of crops bees can get pollen and nectar from. Using data from the 2017 USDA Cropscape report, I built a graphic to visualize where these crops were located. The red dots indicate almond fields, while grey represents a crop that honeybees can forage from. In certain areas we see clusters of almond fields with barely any other crops for bees to forage from.
WORTH THE COMMUTE?
Four miles is about the distance bees will travel and still return with nectar and pollen for the hive. I drew a 4-mile radius around the almond fields and looked at which crops fell within that radius. This graphic illustrates the landscape and the relative acreage of each crop.
The largest crops by area are alfalfa, cotton and oranges. It is clear by looking at the graphic that while there is a wide diversity of crops, very few crops have enough cropland to feed the vast amount of bees needed for almonds.
WORTH THE WAIT?
Another important consideration is bloom time. Almonds bloom very early in the season, ending weeks before other crops begin to bloom. Although plums, cherries and citrus blooms can overlap with almonds, those crops account for less than 2% of the cropland in the Central Valley. Alfalfa would be a good source of bee forage at 29% of the nearby cropland, but bloom doesn’t start until May.
We often get asked by outsiders, "why don't almond growers just manage their own hives?"
This was my roundabout way of illustrating one of the key reasons why not. It takes a lot of work to keep hives going through the year—even with an abundance of local forage sources. If a grower needs to send someone out every couple days to feed the bees, it's probably not worth the value of not needing to rent hives every February.