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.