Abnormally cold weather this month in California’s Central Valley, where 80% of worldwide almond production takes place, is causing fear among almond growers. Though the freeze is responsible for some hauntingly beautiful images, experts warn of a grave outlook for this year’s crop. Blue Diamond Growers President Mark Jansen is “deeply concerned,” claiming “current weather conditions could have an impact on all segments of the almond industry.”
Bees in a freeze
The question we all have is, how does this affect beekeepers? Crop insurance will cover some of the growers’ losses, but does your pollination contract guarantee payment even if almond trees never bloom? Among beekeepers who offer pollination, only 58% have a written contract with the grower—the other 42% work on a “handshake” agreement (Bee Culture, 2015). If you fall under the latter category, you might want to ring up your grower to make sure they’ll pay even if the almonds never bloom. Then make sure to get your agreement in writing.
Our next question is about bee nutrition. Sure, you probably feed supplements while your bees are in the almond groves anyway, but this year might be different. With little forage available from frozen almond trees, pollen supplements might be the only food source for your bees this spring. Without enough pollen to kickstart bee production, there’s a good chance that your spring splits may fall short of projections. You should plan accordingly if you have a lot of package/nuc orders lined up.
The bigger picture
Now let’s touch on the greater issue at hand: the economics. With global demand for almonds steadily increasing over the past decade, California growers have been ramping up production. And with more almond acreage cropping up each year, there’s a need for more and more bees.
Last year, beekeepers trucked out 1.7 million colonies for almond pollination. An estimated 1.9 million were needed this year to pollinate a record 1 million acres of almonds. The latest report from USDA estimates there were a total of 2.89 million hives in the country last April—about 80,000 more hives than in April 2016. Accounting for typical winter losses, that means almost 75% of the nation’s hives are needed for almond pollination this year.
On top of all this, 2017 was a bad year for beekeepers. Natural disasters took a toll on hives in some of the biggest states for beekeeping. Florida and Texas beekeepers faced flooding from two chaotic hurricanes, while those in California dealt with historic wildfires. Summer drought also affected beekeepers in western states, where bees are typically brought to do splits and stock up on nutritious forage after pollination season.
The growth in California almond production has brought a lot of money into the beekeeping industry, but almond pollination is one of the greatest threats we face. The demand for almond pollination is causing beekeepers to make as many splits as possible rather than focus on building healthy colonies. The numbers just don’t add up. With almond production currently in a state of crisis, there’s a lot of uncertainty going forward.
This post is a follow-on to Ellie's Op-ed in the Crimson Catalyst: The importance of mentors: Pushing entrepreneurs past their comfort zones.
While I wrote this op-ed about how mentors have helped me with my business, I couldn’t help but think about how important mentorship is for beekeeping. I first experienced beekeeping when volunteering for Stratford Ecological Center in Ohio. The beekeeper, Dave Nobel, needed a helping hand, and I immediately fell in love with the craft. I spent the summer volunteering with him and learning how to keep bees.
When I returned to Bloomington in the Fall, I found a retired IU professor, George Hegeman, who keeps hives at Hilltop Garden and Nature Center. I asked him if he would mentor me to continue my experience from the summer, and we spent the last weeks of fall inspecting his hives to get them ready for winter. When I received a grant from the Hutton Honors College to start hives for campus, he helped me pick out equipment, taught me how to prep it, and helped install the bees.
He continued to mentor me the next few years through issues with the hives and would check in on our hives from time to time. Without these two beekeeping mentors, I wouldn’t have even tried the craft, much less grow it into a business.
Many experienced beekeepers will tell you how important it is to have a mentor when starting out. Because of how mentors have helped me grow my business, I also believe that beekeepers should continue to seek advice as they grow their operation. Here are a few ways to find beekeepers willing to help:
In case you missed them, two national beekeeping conferences took place last week: American Beekeeping Federation (ABF) in Reno and American Honey Producers Association (AHPA) in San Diego. Here are some key takeaways and trends we found.
The biggest takeaway from both conferences was the surprisingly low turnout. We heard all kinds of theories, from poor weather across the country to a nasty virus going around. But even with the slow foot traffic this year, there was still plenty of business being conducted. I’ll be the first to admit that vendors love to complain even when things are just fine.
There’s a lot of uncertainty about the new Electronic Logging Device (ELD) rule, which went into effect on December 18th. The new rule requires commercial truckers to install an ELD to track hours on the road. This change is causing uncertainty for two reasons: costs are expected to rise, and non-stop trips might be at risk.
Agriculture truckers were given a 90-day waiver to comply, which covers those of us trucking bees out for almond season. But come March, you’ll need an ELD to transport hives. For beekeepers, automated trucking can’t come soon enough.
Another hot topic causing buzz this year was the extreme weather that devastated many apiaries in 2017. Beekeepers from Texas and Florida faced severe flooding from hurricanes Harvey and Irma, while California beekeepers battled historic wildfires and drought.
Obviously we can’t control the weather, but it’s frustrating that some of the best climates to keep hives are starting to become more and more volatile.
Technology and innovation
While we were all in Reno and San Diego, the top tech companies in the world came together in Las Vegas for CES 2018. But that didn’t stop beekeeping tech companies from going all out for ABF and AHPA. It seems like each year there are more and more innovative companies popping up at beekeeping conferences to showcase their products.
Competition is growing, which means faster innovation and lower prices are soon to come. It’s an exciting time for technology in beekeeping.
Theft and vandalism
We’re all aware that hive theft is becoming a bigger issue these days. With almond prices at an all-time high, it makes sense that some shady beekeepers would steal hives to earn a quick and easy payday. But lately there’s been a growing threat of vandalism, and the motives are puzzling.
What kind of sadistic person stumbles upon a bee yard and thinks, “hey, these would be fun to destroy!” It looks like a pair of teenagers are to blame for vandalizing 50 hives in Iowa late last year. Juvenile shenanigans might explain this instance of vandalism, but I find it hard to believe that kids are the only ones doing it.
Where to overwinter your hives has always been an important question for beekeepers. No matter which climate and region of the country you prefer, at the end of the day you’re still banking on a mild winter to hopefully avoid wild temperatures.
But more and more beekeepers are shifting towards a new solution: overwintering inside giant climate-controlled warehouses normally used to store crops. Companies like Agri-Stor are making a major push, causing beekeepers to re-think how they overwinter their hives. Expect to see more of these cold-storage warehouses cropping up across the country.
There’s so much in store for the beekeeping industry in 2018. I expect to see many exciting new developments and opportunities as our industry continues to grow and adapt.
We spent the past 4 weeks traveling across the country (plus Canada) to attend 5 of the most prominent state beekeeping conferences. Below are some takeaways and impressions from this year’s fall conferences in Oregon, Ohio, Texas, California and New York/Ontario.
Whether you’re planning to organize, exhibit at, or simply attend a beekeeping conference next year, these notes should serve as a useful outline for what to expect.
Our first conference kicked off with one of my favorite programs I saw this fall. Prior to the actual conference, the Oregon State Beekeepers hosted a Commercial Beekeepers Workshop in conjunction with GloryBee and Project Apis m. This workshop covered some really boring stuff like risk management and food safety laws, but these are topics that very serious commercial beekeepers take very seriously.
It’s refreshing to see programming like this designed to teach important business topics not related to beekeeping. This is something I hope to see a lot more of in our industry. As beekeepers become more business-savvy, our industry will start to become more efficient and competitive.
As for the conference itself, I was surprised to see such an even mix of hobbyists, sideliners and commercial guys in attendance. It didn’t seem like the event catered to one type of beekeeper—there was useful programming for all levels.
I think some of the credit goes to the Oregon commercial beekeepers for this. Though they have the resources to make the conference all about them, they made sure to make newbees and hobbyists feel welcome as well.
We took a quick road trip to the Buckeye state, where we stumbled upon some more great programming. This conference was almost exclusively targeted at hobbyists, which makes sense because there aren’t very many large-scale operations in the Midwest.
One thing that really struck me: each session featured a class about technology in beekeeping. Our industry desperately needs to catch up to the times with respect to integrating technology. It’s encouraging to see hobbyists start to take on this challenge, but we really need commercial guys to step up to the plate and fuel innovation.
The Buckeye organizers excelled at vendor coordination. There were 34(!) vendors in Ohio, compared to Oregon’s modest 15. I don’t mean to throw shade at Oregon, but that is seriously impressive for an event targeted towards hobbyists.
Special shout out to organizer Dawn, who went way above and beyond. Dawn made sure lunches and water bottles were delivered to each vendor’s table, and she even had spare cash on hand in case a vendor needed change!
Texas was a last-second addition to our fall conference tour, so we’re thankful that the organizers were able to squeeze us in. This conference was a lot like Oregon, in that it featured a really solid mix of hobbyists, sideliners and commercial beekeepers.
We got a chance to sit in on the group’s business meeting, which turned out to be my favorite part of the whole event. I was really impressed by how well-organized and engaged members were. Although it seemed like the members were mostly hobbyists and the leaders were mostly commercial, members were unafraid to question leaders’ decisions, and leaders were responsive to members’ input.
I found it really interesting to watch this meeting in action because I’d never seen such active membership within a state beekeeping association. The success of the Texas Beekeepers Association can speak for itself—membership has grown substantially over the past few years.
California’s conference was seriously impressive. This conference was like the Academy Awards for beekeeping; all the big players were there. I probably looked like a little kid being taken on a tour through a MLB clubhouse.
There was so much to take away from this conference. For one, there couldn’t have been more than 5 hobbyists in attendance. Although it was good for business to get engaged with so many commercial operations, it would be nice to see the interests of California hobbyists represented a little better.
The diversity of vendors and industry stakeholders made up for the lack of hobbyists to a certain degree. All sorts of companies came out to Lake Tahoe to show off their products; from hive equipment to pharmaceuticals, and from insurance to trucks. If you use a product for beekeeping, there’s a good chance that the manufacturing company was in attendance.
Easily the best part of the programming was the vendor’s reception on the first evening. Given the busy nature of beekeepers, it can be a challenge to get connected with others in the industry. The reception was a prime opportunity to network with key customers and partners, without the usual pressure of selling.
After narrowly escaping a snowstorm in Lake Tahoe, we enjoyed 3 sleepless flights with non-stop turbulence before arriving a few hours late to our final conference in Niagara Falls, Ontario. The Empire State Honey Producers Association and Ontario Beekeepers Association joined forces for this conference, and they did a masterful job.
As you might expect, we were feeling a little groggy by the time we set up our table. Luckily, the event organizers knew how to satisfy such weary travelers; permanent coffee stations and a phenomenal lunch spread were perfect energy boosters to help us through the rest of our 48-hour day.
The food and coffee weren’t the only highlights to note here. What really struck me was the cooperation between American and Canadian beekeepers. It must’ve been quite a challenge to create a program that integrates content relevant to both American and Canadian beekeepers, but the organizers pulled it off flawlessly.
Certain compromises were necessary—for example, American vendors couldn’t take their wares across the border. Still, there was a good mix of American and Canadian vendors, and the attendees didn’t seem to mind.
During the season our to-do lists can get pretty overwhelming. It’s tough to find time to plan out your projects over the next few months with the mountain of tasks in front of you right now.
It’s hard to believe, but Thanksgiving week is almost upon us. After you’ve had your fill of mingling with the family and gobbling down leftover turkey sandwiches, this a great time of year to set aside a few hours to do some simple strategic goalsetting for the upcoming season.
1. Visualize long-term success
Ask yourself: what do I want my business to look like 1 year from now? What about 10 years from now? Where do I want my business to take me 30 years from now?
Success in business doesn’t come overnight, it often takes a lifetime of grinding towards milestone after milestone. It’s important to visualize what success means to you so you can start to break down your steps for getting there. Unless you know where you want your business to take you by the end of your career, it’s difficult to know which path you should take right now.
Start by identifying your long-term goals, then we'll break down each goal into bite-size pieces. Let’s say, in 30 years, you hope to:
2. Create smaller milestones
For each of your goals, set up a simple matrix to outline the smaller milestones you’ll need to reach over time in order to achieve your final goal. Here’s a quick example I made in Excel to help you get started:
At this point, you're probably thinking, "these milestones are nice to know, but I still don't know how I'm going to go about reaching them."
Luckily, you and I are on the same page. Let's talk about implementing your plan.
3. Implementation: identify your needs
For this step, let's use my sample 30-year goalsetting matrix as an example.
In 5 years, I want to hire a business manager to help grow the business. In order to attract a talented business manager, I'll need to offer this person:
Your challenge now is figuring out how to put yourself in a position to offer these things 5 years from now. What will you need?
Now you have a roadmap to hiring your business manager. Some of these tasks will be quite challenging to accomplish, like creating annual revenue growth. But others can be knocked out with little effort, like outsourcing your HR functions.
Review, re-evaluate, re-strategize
If you’re reaching your goals year after year with no trouble, you need to set more ambitious goals. If you haven’t been able to reach a single goal, maybe it’s time to scale back your plans.
Things change, new challenges emerge and new opportunities present themselves. It’s important to periodically adjust your goals so they’re always realistic and achievable.
No matter what challenges your business might run into next year, these three steps will help you make tough decisions on the spot when you don’t have time to explore all the options.
If your fancy automated uncapper breaks down halfway through a harvest or your business manager suddenly decides to switch careers, you’ll have a good idea whether or not your budget can take a 5-figure hit, and how much your long term goals might be set back.