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 ____?
Worth the commute?
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.
Well...ok...the drones are not ‘killing’ the pollination business just yet. But, since my last post on drone pollination, I’ve found some other alternative pollinators that are trying to find a place in the pollination market. Perhaps these drones will help alleviate bee supply issues some growers are facing.
In North Carolina, Thomas Parish IV and his team have built the Poli-X2 drone, which pollinates more similarly to bees (unlike the Pollinator Bot, referenced in my previous blog post). The Poli-X2 has been testing in local gardens since 2017. One of the biggest challenges they faced in developing their model was inhibiting the device from lurching forward when flying in for flower pollination. From what I can see in the video footage, it looks like they’ve done a pretty good job with this.
Their model is not designed to replace bees, but to supplement the pollination done by existing bees. The drone uses artificial intelligence to scan for pre-programmed species of flowers, including tree flowers. At this time, the images being collected from the device are being sent via WiFi to a nearby PC where decisions are made regarding which plants to pollinate. Later development plans are to install this decision-making software within the device... that’s what we call edge computing, good ol' IoT (internet of things).
The Bee Corp is headed to the Forbes AgTech Summit next month in Indianapolis, and fellow attendee and panelist Anna Haldewang has been working on her own pollination drone, Plan Bee, which she first devised for a product design course at the Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia.
The drone is controlled by a smart device and has six sections on its underside that suck pollen from the flowers it hovers over. The pollen is later expelled for cross-pollination. It’s innovative…and, yes, I’m going to say it...it’s so darn cute! Art and Engineering combined!
Now, there are other ways of getting flowering crops pollinated... such as literally dropping a whole mess of pollen from the sky. Dropcopter, the aptly-named startup with offices in New York & San Francisco, has developed a drone to do just that. Some test results show that the Dropcopter drones can increase "pollination rates" between 25-60% in almonds & cherries, depending on weather conditions.
It's unclear how they measure pollination rate—perhaps it's the number of times each flower is visited by bees? Regardless, I applaud this no-frills approach.
But if you want to get REALLY heavy-handed with the pollination, you can give the guys from Pollen-Tech a call. This Arizona-based AgTech startup doesn’t use drones in its operation, but an electrostatic spray technology to mist almond trees during pollination season. Initial field test results showed a 6.55% increase in crop yield over untreated control-group trees. The electrostatic charge helps the pollen become attracted to the stigma of the flowers, increasing the efficiency of the process, without significant pollen loss.
It’s great to see all of these technological innovations in the works. For the near future, these methods are only equipped to supplement what the busy bees are doing in their pollination efforts. And they could help give growers some peace of mind when aren’t able to book the bevy of bees they need to get their crops pollinated. Exciting times for AgTech!
This year has been among the hottest years on Earth, July being no joke. With the unusually high UV radiation coming from the sun and incoming heat waves, one can really feel the sting of summer on their skin. Speaking of stings, how are the bees staying cool this summer?
We know that bees naturally vent hot air out of their beehive, and cool it down by fanning their wings. An individual healthy hive is comprised of tens of thousands of bees, all working together to maintain the colony's core temperature. Whether fanning to cool down during the summer or clustering to stay warm during the winter, bees are always toying with the thermostat to their internal HVAC system.
This has me wondering: how hot is a bee?
Hot or not?
We can calculate the amount of heat a single bee exerts based on how many bees are in a hive and the volume of the hive. Making lots of assumptions, we can now cross the t’s here, dot the i’s there, take the derivative of temperature with respect to the volume, compute gas laws, et voila! We find that each bee is between 30-38 degrees C (or you can just read this paper).
Of course, my estimate is very rough, and the paper goes into more in depth methods on how they found those numbers. Not all bees are created equal, in fact; some bees contribute more, and some less with a variation of up to 12 degrees.
Bees are known for their complex ecosystem and efficient task delegation. A honeybee colony is a uniquely selfless community known as a "superorganism". Rather than trying to complete a diverse range of tasks individually, bees realized they can be better off by dividing the workload and specializing in certain tasks. Part of this ecosystem is something I find absolutely astonishing: Heater bees, a sub-caste of nurse bees with abnormally high body temperature that strategically maneuver about the hive.
These wireless space heaters aren't just for comfort—their precision temperature control is important for raising brood. Brood frames that will produce foragers need to be kept at a slightly higher temperature than brood being raised for housekeeping tasks. These little ladies will even squeeze into empty forager brood cells to warm it up from the inside, working as a radiator of sorts (minus the coolant flush). How neat is that?
I'm always fascinated by all the quirks and factoids there are to learn about bees. Even one small area of research—hive temperature regulation--has produced so many revelations about how a hive works. But revelations also lead to more questions, such as why does hive temperature drop when a colony becomes queenless? A great question for a future post...
It’s been well established by researchers and experts that a stronger colony produces greater pollination value. Joe Traynor, a preeminent pioneer of pollination, estimated in 1999 that an 8-frame colony will send out 7 to 10 times more foragers than a 4-frame colony.
More recently, Randy Oliver’s analysis of data from Dr. Frank Eischen revealed that the marginal value of frame strength appears to be more linear—4-frame colonies provide half the value of 8-framers, and 1/3 the value of 12-framers. Still, Randy’s analysis indicates that growers are getting a bargain for strong hives and overpaying for weak hives.
After poring over these studies, I wondered whether we could estimate the marginal value of a single bee. That is, how much pollination value does each additional bee provide? Thanks to some number-crunching from our intern, Dalia, we came up with a reasonably solid estimate. Keep in mind, this back-of-the-napkin analysis doesn’t account for important factors like weather variability, management methods or other costs of production.
Calculating marginal value
These numbers are from the 2011 season, the most recent complete set of data available. You may recall that 2011 brought a record yield at 2,600lbs/acre statewide, despite notoriously poor weather during pollination season.
Fact: In 2011, about 1.5 million colonies traveled to California to pollinate 750,000 acres, producing nearly 2 billion pounds of almonds.
Fact: An 8-frame hive contains approximately 14,000 bees.
Fact: The market price for an 8-frame hive was about $150 in 2011.
Bottom line: In 2011, almond growers earned 19 times the value they paid for each bee. NINETEEN TIMES!! This number is insane. Imagine a manufacturer making a 94.7% margin on their cost of labor. That just doesn’t happen.
Apple, the most profitable company in the world, makes a gross margin of about 21%. Amazon runs a 1.7% margin. This comparison is Apples to oranges (see what I did there?), but it almost makes sense if you look at the beehive as an uber-efficient pollination factory.
Now, although this breakdown could be substantially more robust, I think it’s important to start looking at pollination through this lens of marginal value. If Randy Oliver’s findings are indeed correct and the value of each frame remains linear regardless of the total number of frames in a colony, then the debate over stocking rate and frame strength is moot.
The true value isn’t number of colonies per acre or average frame strength; what really matters is the total number of bees out foraging.
Small-scale beekeepers are part of a thriving community that so heavily relies on cooperation and mentorship. Hobbyists and sideliners go out of their way to teach others, support local clubs and help newbies get off the ground. Yet as operations scale into the hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of hives, a different community appears to emerge. A community that doesn’t always feel so cooperative.
There are plenty of good reasons for why large-scale beekeepers hold their cards close to their chests. For one, these beekeepers aren’t doing it for fun; commercial beekeepers need to be competitive because, like any business, their livelihood is at stake. Taking an aspiring commercial beekeeper under your wing to show them the ropes could create a monster that eventually eats into your business.
Other factors have to do with the nature of the job. Beekeepers don’t spend their time in an office making calls, connecting and networking with clients and vendors. Beekeepers—even the big guys—are out working the bees every day. They need all hands on deck, otherwise the work won’t get done. It’s difficult to set aside a couple hours to show a new guy how to move through hundreds of hives in a day.
Beekeepers are isolated. Major operations are often located in the middle of nowhere. Even if one can arrange to spend a few days shadowing with a commercial beekeeper, driving up to Musselshell, Montana can be a major pain.
Beekeepers spend far more time with bees than with people. This point may sound obvious, but it’s easy for isolated beekeepers to develop a bit of tunnel vision. Working bees is a practice in observation. Spending months on end observing nothing but your bees can cause one to forget that there are others out in the trenches going through the same struggles.
How can we contribute?
Here’s my point: the commercial beekeeping community is too shut-off. We need more large-scale beekeepers to embrace the small beekeepers’ model of cooperation and mentorship if we expect the next generation to carry this industry into the future.
Here are a few simple things we can all do to pitch in:
Before I sign off, I should point out that there are many exceptions. Off the top of my head, I can spout off more than 20 big-time beekeepers whose contributions to the community far outweigh what they ask in return. Expect a follow-up post from me spotlighting some of the truly altruistic beekeepers who are devoted to building our community.