For the third post of my almond pollination 2020 series [part 1] [part 2], I’ll discuss ideas to solve the barriers currently facing almond production growth. As I covered in part 2, we’re rapidly burning our way through the two most important inputs: bees and water.
The water issue is top-of-mind for the Almond Board of California, as evidenced by the millions research dollars funneled into hundreds of studies on reducing water consumption.
The big question we now must address is how we enable the bee industry to meet the demand for almonds? There are two ways to go about it: increase the number of healthy hives or reduce the demand for pollination.
Increase supply of hives
Largely due to additional revenue from almond pollination over the past 2 decades, the beekeeping industry has demonstrated remarkable resilience against mounting threats to hive survival. Thanks to the almond industry’s increasing demand for pollination, beekeepers can afford to apply numerous treatments to mitigate the destructive Varroa mite—widely credited as a leading cause of hive loss.
I built this chart with bee data and almond data from USDA to show how the estimated number of honeybee colonies has changed since 1986. I included almond bearing acreage since 1995 (as far back as the data goes) to demonstrate a compelling case. Here’s my interpretation: steady bee declines through the mid-2000s were only reversed when almond pollination commanded more than a million hives at over $100 each.
This goes to show that when beekeepers have access to additional resources, they have the capacity to respond to threats facing hive survival. If our goal is to grow hive numbers to meet demand for almond pollination, I’m confident that well-funded beekeepers are our best bet.
Reducing demand for pollination
Perhaps almond growers will switch to other tree nuts with less dependence on bee pollination, like walnuts, pecans and pistachios. Although their shelf life is better than fruits and veggies, they don’t quite stack up to almonds.
The almond industry’s true power is its marketing. It seems like almond products can be found in practically every aisle at your grocery store, but when was the last time you saw pistachio milk or pecan crackers? If the California almond marketers joined forces with the non-almond tree nut growers to focus on copying the success of almonds, it would make the decision to switch away from almonds a little easier for some growers.
The tricky part of reducing almond supply is the market dynamics. Thanks to the unmatched success of marketing almonds to a global audience, I don’t imagine the demand for almonds is likely to decrease. Marketers must convince consumers to substitute other nuts for their daily intake, otherwise the price of almonds will rise, and growers will once again be drawn to planting almonds.
There’s a lot to chew on when it comes to solving the mismatch between almond demand and bee supply, but I hope this post helps to show that we have some potential paths forward. I’ll wrap up this series with one last post that looks at what’s in store for the next 20 years of almond pollination, including some tactical solutions to pollination supply.