With this year’s harvest starting to wrap up, the 2020 pollination season is right around the corner. If you don’t have your bees lined up already, it’d be wise to get on that ASAP. If you’ve already got a deal signed, here are some things you can do to make sure it all goes smoothly.
Check in with your beekeeper (but don’t bug them)
Just because the weather’s getting cooler and the bees are shutting down for winter, there’s not a lot of downtime for beekeepers in these next few months. They’re busy feeding, treating and shuffling hives from state to state, overseeing a hectic web of logistics to make sure the bees arrive in your orchard in the best shape possible.
Consider giving your beekeeper a call every month or so to check in and confirm everything’s still on track. Keep in mind they’re working extra long hours, so if they don’t answer your first call or two, it probably means they’re working the bees. Make sure you’re easily reachable and available to answer when they return your calls at odd hours.
Discuss every detail
About a month before the bees are dropped, it’s a good idea to have a longer discussion with your beekeeper to review your plans.
Consider providing water & growing cover crop
If the 2020 season is anything like 2019, the bees should have plenty of access to water. But if there’s no rain during pollination, it’s a good idea to set out some water basins for the bees. Make sure to place something for bees to land on inside the basins, otherwise they may drown.
Pollination is more than just a job to get done. Putting in extra hours of prep work will lead to less stress and fewer complications when it matters. Your beekeepers will be thankful for your effort.
In case you haven’t heard the news, we’ve been awarded a Phase II SBIR grant from the National Science Foundation to accelerate development of Verifli. This award is a result of months and months of early days and long nights and unwavering support from folks who believed in us and pushed us to achieve. It’s perhaps our most important milestone to date.
What this award tells us
We took a leap of faith early last year by shifting away from in-hive sensor monitoring and focusing on building Verifli. Pivoting towards an entirely new business model was a huge risk that was make-or-break for our company. This pivot was largely made possible thanks to the Phase I grant awarded to us by NSF, which provided the resources to understand a new market and develop a new solution.
The award also speaks to the priorities of the NSF, an organization widely held in high regard. NSF’s investments have sprouted innovations that shape today’s world—like weather radar, MRI scanners and Google—as well as projects of the future—like DNA phenotyping to solve cold cases, affordable cancer treatments and AI to rescue human trafficking victims. Earning NSF funding is not just a reward for our months of hard work, it tells us that we’re working to solve a problem that’s vital to the future.
The future of pollination
It’s no secret that honeybees have had a tough go of things over the past few years. Media outlets have found that readers gobble up coverage of the bees’ decline, leading to widespread awareness of the issue. But if you ask a commercial beekeeper, they won’t express much concern. They’re confident they can overcome any adversity, though it may cost quite a bit more to keep their hives going these days.
We aim to build a pathway to the future of pollination by helping growers and beekeepers to optimize their inputs. As many promising startups swarm to the beekeeping technology space, we hope to be a leader and a connector, partnering with other providers to deliver more value for beekeepers and growers who depend on pollination.
Though this grant is a huge milestone for The Bee Corp, it doesn’t mean we’ve hit a homerun just yet. The award tells us we’re on a promising path, but we still need to perform. We’ll start to put the right pieces in place over the next few months by growing our team and expanding R&D.
I promise this is the final post in my almond pollination 2020 series [part 1] [part 2] [part 3]. This time, I’m offering a solution for how the almond and bee industries can sustain growth over the next 2 decades.
It’ll be another few years before this happens, but California almond acreage will eventually reach its peak and begin to recede. In the meantime, our best path forward is to protect almond growers and beekeepers through economic policy designed to increase bee supply.
The funding issue
My last post offered a few approaches to the issue of our limited bee supply and how it’s not compatible with the global demand for almonds. One approach was to provide supplemental funding to beekeepers, who have shown that they can effectively mitigate colony loss with the help of additional income.
Beekeepers are well-funded these days thanks to almond pollination fees, but much of that money is spent on Varroa treatments and extra labor to keep colonies alive. More beekeepers are targeting pollination fees as their main source of income, at the sake of honey production.
Aside from the appeal of high-value pollination contracts, a major factor for the decline in honey production is the influx of foreign honey (see chart). Although U.S. honey consumption has more than doubled in the past 30 years, the dollars aren’t going to American producers. Consumers may think they’re helping to “save the bees” by purchasing honey at the supermarket, but nearly 75% of honey consumed in the states last year was produced on foreign soil.
These imports have driven down prices so much that honey production is no longer lucrative for many American beekeepers. “It costs the US producer around $1.75 to $1.85 to produce a pound of honey,” says beekeeper Kelvin Adee. “They’re bringing it in here under a dollar and there’s no way we can compete with that.”
A simple solution
One way to divert the money back into the pockets of American beekeepers is to increase tariffs on imported honey. Higher tariffs will lead to higher prices. Although consumer demand will take a hit, domestic production will still fall plenty short of meeting demand.
Increased prices will draw some beekeepers back to focusing on honey production, ultimately reducing the supply of bees for post-almond crop pollination*. With more hives going to mid-season honey sites, fewer will be available to pollinate apples, cherries, blueberries and watermelons, forcing these growers to raise their bid to rent hives during the spring and summer months. All this extra revenue will allow beekeepers to hire additional labor and invest in increasing their stock of hives.
*I say post-almond pollination because I imagine honey producers will still use the February almond bloom to build hives early in the season ahead of the first honey crop.
Though it may seem like a roundabout solution to the issue of limited bee supply constraining almond production, honey tariffs will provide much-needed funding to beekeepers, who will in turn use the funds to increase bee supply. With this solution, almond growers will no longer bear the brunt of funding the survival of our honeybee population. Other growers--who benefit from strong post-almond bees—will pay their dues, as will American consumers.
Last month, I was invited by some local beekeepers to visit Australia and learn about the beekeeping and almond industries down under. I spent the week meeting with beekeepers, growers, other businesses in the AgTech space and government officials. We attended conferences and field days and enjoyed some meals with their fantastic coffee and wine. It was a week of learning for me, and I want to share some interesting findings about the industry that I was able to pick up through the Aussie slang.
Though Australian beekeepers don’t have to deal with the Varroa mite, the key challenge that dictated how hives are managed commercially is forage availability. There’s a lot more natural forage available in Australia, and compared to the US, hives tend to produce more honey each year. Depending on the region, Australian hives can produce 165lbs per hive each year, whereas American beekeepers are usually grateful to crack to 100lb mark.
Because of better forage availability, not all beekeepers feed their bees. Some are starting to experiment with it, but the focus seemed to be more on pollen supplements than sugar-based feed. I didn’t find a single beekeeper who feeds with sugar syrup. One interesting impact of this is how many hives in single deep boxes are sent to almonds, which raises a concern for robbing before almond bloom. To prevent this, many beekeepers don’t bring their hives into almonds until 10% bloom, much later than in California.
Competition to almond pollination
Unlike in the US, almonds aren’t the only crop blooming at the beginning of the season, so Australian almond growers must compete with other crop growers to meet their pollination needs. Canola is planted in a similar region as almonds and can bloom before or during almond bloom. In addition, beekeepers in the northeastern part of the country can have access to plenty of natural forage during almond bloom, allowing beekeepers to begin honey production as an alternative to collecting pollination fees. This will likely lead almond growers to raise prices for pollination in to meet their quotas and provide an incentive for beekeepers to skip out on early season honey revenue.
Vive le Canada! In September, we’re headed to Montréal for the 46th Apimondia International Apicultural Congress. I’ll be getting on stage to showcase our work building Verifli, our infrared hive grading solution, to the global scientific beekeeping community.
I first became exposed to the world of beekeeping when I joined The Bee Corp less than two years ago. After a drastic career shift, it’s rather validating for me to have this opportunity to share this work with the scientific beekeeping community.
What my talk will cover
A major pain for growers, especially almond growers in California, is renting enough strong beehives to pollinate their trees. Almonds bloom in February when most of the nation’s bee colonies are in winter survival mode. Since it’s difficult to build up hive population so early in the season, almond pollination contract prices are based on colony strength. To validate hive strength, growers hire trained inspectors to pop open hives and estimate colony size, measured by how many frames are covered by bees. Frame counts are time consuming and disruptive to bee activity. Because of how long it takes, inspectors typically only grade a small sample of a grower’s hives.
Verifli allows growers to measure colony size without opening any hives. Users simply plug the FLIR infrared camera into their smartphone, snap a picture of as many hives as they’d like, and receive a report of each hive’s frame count. Each picture takes just a few seconds and no bees are disturbed in the process.
We also built Verifli to help beekeepers. By providing Verifli reports to their growers, beekeepers can be transparent about their quality of their hives, reinforcing grower’s confidence in the relationship. Beekeepers can also use Verifli as a point of comparison to other hives on the market, which can be used to justify the price they’re charging.
America’s National Science Foundation is excited about the broader impacts of Verifli. Data collected with Verifli can be used to optimize hive placement rate and distribution of hives during pollination. Since almond pollination requires more than 2/3 of the nation’s hives, this information could help reduce the strain on the country’s hive population as almond acreage continues to grow.
Verifli data can also help companies that develop pesticides and fungicides for crops that require bee population. These companies understand that they can’t sell products that interfere with another input, especially an input as important as bees. With Verifli, these companies can measure whether products in development have an adverse impact on honeybees.
Apimondia will be my first-ever bee conference and it’s crazy to think that I’m going to be on stage presenting my work. I hope some of you are able to attend. If not, I’ll go ahead and have that extra honey sample for you at the conference! Au revoir!
See my talk on Tuesday the 10th at 11AM in Room 517C