As we gear up for pollination season 2020, it’s worth looking back 20 years ago, before almond pollination grew into an industry that generates half a billion dollars each year.
As I dug into some research on the past 2 decades of almond pollination, I uncovered all the elements of a compelling story: success and failure, risk and danger, thousand-mile journeys, moments of treachery and deceit, and of course, the pursuit of riches. What was once just a collection of gentlemen’s agreements between good old boys in the valley, almond pollination evolved into a modern-day gold rush. And it came together in our lifetime.
You see, almond pollination is a relatively recent phenomenon—at least to the scale we see today. Nowadays, more than 2 million hives make the trek to California’s Central Valley each February, where they can fetch an average of almost $200 per hive. This of post explores the making of the 9-figure industry that emerged in the past two decades.
An industry 2 decades in the making
Let’s hop into the time machine and journey back to the turn of the century, with pollination prophet Joe Traynor and our favorite lab-coat-wearing beekeeper Randy Oliver as our tour guides:
2000 - Joe Traynor (link)
One of Joe Traynor’s earliest articles on Beesource.com, this January 2000 post gives us a glimpse of what pollination was like at the turn of the century. Though this article isn’t entirely focused on almond pollination, Joe gives us a good idea of where the industry was at the time: “Almond growers pay dearly for their bees – rental fees are up to $50/colony.” Joe also offers some foresight into where the industry’s headed: “without almond pollination income, many US. beekeepers would be out of business.”
But, in a scathing editor’s note, beekeeper Oren Best couldn’t let Joe’s comment go unchallenged. Kicking off by suggesting that “Joe Traynor doesn’t get out much,” (yikes) Oren argues that “honey production is still the back bone of the bee industry” and “the pollination industry is not wrapped around the almond farms.” This beekeeper’s perspective truly goes to show how forward-thinking Joe was 20 years back. Hindsight’s 20/20, but I wonder how Oren would respond today.
2005 - Joe Traynor (link)
Published November 2005, Joe authors this article in response to the Great Bee Shortage from earlier that year. Just 5 years after the article above, almond pollination has changed radically. In 2000, Joe scoffed at the idea of growers paying $50 per hive. Now he tells us that prices are in the $100-150 range. Joe identifies three driving forces behind these price hikes: fear (from growers), greed (from beekeepers) and the climbing price of almonds.
Word had spread among beekeepers nationwide that there’s an opportunity to take advantage of the soon-to-be wealthy almond growers, at least that’s how Joe seems to tell it. This chart from the 2016 Almond Almanac tells a compelling story in the mid 2000’s, and it lends credence to Joe’s theory about beekeepers jacking up their prices after 2005.
Joe wraps up by offering his prediction for the 2006 season, and whether growers should prepare for another bee shortage:
“Will there be a shortage of bee colonies in 2006? It depends on how you define ‘bee colony.’ There has been a shortage of strong bee colonies (defined as 8 or more frames of bees) each and every year since almonds were first planted in California 100 years ago; 2006 will be no different if two strong colonies per acre is the accepted standard. There will likely be the requisite number of bee boxes to cover CA’s 570,000 bearing acres in 2006 but the content of these boxes won’t be known until almond bloom commences in early February.”
In other words, yeah, roughly 1.2 million bee boxes will make their way to the almonds—the real question is whether there will be quality bees in those boxes.
2007 - Randy Oliver (link)
Randy's first post about almond pollination is a long one, and it covers everything from industry history to economics to colony health. I’ll keep my summary brief but the whole article is excellent and I suggest you read it through. Randy starts off with a fascinating oral history of almond pollination, from a friendly exchange of services to a cut-throat, hundred-million-dollar industry.
In the good old days, beekeepers would ask growers to place their bees in the orchards as a favor, to build their hives up early in the season. As plantings increased, beekeepers “had the audacity” to charge growers as much as 25¢ per colony! Madness! By the ‘80’s, when Randy got involved, he could fetch $12 per hive. Steady increases over the next 20 years brought the price to $45 per hive in 2004. Then, the Great Bee Shortage of 2005 caused prices to surge to $80 per hive.
2006 is when Randy’s telling differs from Joe’s. The way Joe tells it, as almond prices climbed in late 2005, beekeepers were overcome by greed and demanded a larger slice of the pie. But Randy suggests that it was in fact the almond growers who reacted to the high prices. Hoping to maximize yield by maximizing pollination, growers “started bidding against each other to ensure that if there was a shortage, their orchard would not go without.” Two interesting ways of looking at the 2006 hive price surge, and it’s likely that both theories have elements of truth.
Then Randy gets into the new demand for colony strength inspectors—something that had never been necessary since beekeepers and growers had previously enjoyed a healthy working relationship. He mentions that once hive prices shot up, some beekeepers started placing colony-less boxes (dead-outs) in the almonds filled with frames of honey, so that robbing bees would appear to a grower like just another lively hive. This led to the creation of “frame strength” as a metric designed to standardize the size of a colony for pollination contracts.
I had a lot of fun researching and writing this piece. Even though it's one of our longest-ever posts here on The Bee Word, there was a lot more content that didn't make the final cut. I'll be converting the extra stuff into a few more posts in celebration of the 2020 season. Big thanks to Joe and Randy for their documentation on the history behind almond pollination.
Among folks not familiar with the industry, a common assumption is that honey is the main revenue source for a beekeeper. And that makes sense—they're called honey bees for a reason, right? Most folks know that honey bees are "pollinators," but few understand the extent of how much value they create through pollination.
In fact, commercial beekeepers generate most of their revenue from renting their hives to growers for pollination. On the recent Bloomberg Business of Bees podcast, reporters talked to beekeepers about how their services have shifted over the years. Around this time in the season, beekeepers must decide between making more hives, so you can collect more rental fees, or stronger hives, so you can collect as much honey revenue as possible.
Pollination/honey revenue calculator
This made me wonder, what’s the math on this tradeoff? How does honey and pollination revenue compare? I built this calculator to help beekeepers estimate their income potential:
A few notes
Of course, every beekeeper has unique factors to consider, so this may not capture your exact situation. I had to make some basic assumptions to make this work and there are countless variables I couldn't include. Fore example, geographic location of your sites will affect trucking costs and honey yield (see our trucking cost analysis), pollination rental fees, sale prices for honey, and how many splits you can do on each hive.
Math and assumptions I used:
Other things to note:
This calculator is just a start of a project I'd like to keep building. I think there aren't enough online resources for beekeepers and I'd like to change that. Many beekeepers operate in isolated regions and they tend to stick with what's worked in the past. My hope is to show beekeepers that better opportunities might exist if they're willing to switch things up.
For the second consecutive year, we joined forces with a class at Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs to host a “Bee Data Hack-a-thon”. We tasked Professor Roger Morris’s class of graduate and undergraduate students with determining whether a relationship exists between yield and bee flight time in a given season. Armed with two sets of data—USDA yield data and NOAA weather data—the students were given 72 hours to reach a conclusion.
The Challenge: Determine if relationship exists between bee flight time and almond yield.
The Resources: USDA yield data, NOAA weather data.
1. No teams were able to find a relationship between bee flight time and yield
Although the datasets provided to students were admittedly limited—yield and weather numbers were aggregated by county—we figured there would be a rough trend between bee flight time and yield. As it turns out, more “bee flight” days during pollination doesn’t lead to increased yields at the end of the season.
2. Further analysis (with more granular data) is necessary
In the interest of keeping things simple, we gave students a very basic equation to calculate “bee flight days”:
Bee flight days = # days [temp. > 55℉] AND [wind < 10 MPH]
In other words, if temperature reached over 55 degrees and the wind was below 10 MPH, at any point during a day, that would count as one bee flight day. This meant that days that were sunny and 70 degrees were counted the same as days that were chilly and rainy.
Additionally, no consideration was given to hive strength or hive stocking rate per acre. The importance of strong hives has been well-documented by researchers, as colonies with higher populations will send more bees to forage.
Putting aside our concerns with the accuracy of the data, it was startling to see that no team found that yields are higher when there’s better weather during pollination season. Lots of growers will tell you they stock 2+ hives per acre as insurance against poor weather during pollination. But these findings suggest that bees get the job done no matter the weather.
Though we're not the first to suggest that growers are stocking too many hives per acre, we also understand that these results don't account for many factors that impact yield. We’d like to repeat this study on a smaller level, where more precise data can be captured on the number and distribution of pollinating bees, as well as weather and yield at the orchard level.
Thanks to Professor Morris and his students for taking part in another successful Bee Data Hackathon!
Published in March, a study by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service reached a somewhat obvious but important discovery about trucking bees and how hives manage stress associated with long-distance travel. The study suggests that hives under 10 frames when loaded onto trucks have trouble regulating brood temperature, affecting the development of an entire “generation” of brood and diminishing colony population just before almond bloom begins.
Brood subject to cooler temperatures during pupation “can result in developmental abnormalities when they emerge as adult bees,” suggests researcher Dacotah Melicher. “This could be the cause of smaller colonies failing within a few weeks of being shipped.”
“Hive strength was the greatest predictor of thermal stability during transportation, loss of population after arrival, and long-term colony survival.” In other words, weaker hives are less likely to survive after transportation.
Though the findings may seem obvious, this study uncovers strong evidence that supports what many of us had figured to be true. This is a giant step in the right direction for the beekeeping community, where empirical facts are rare and conflicting theories are common.
If Ian Rapoport reported on bees instead of football, his tweet on this study would no doubt include his iconic catchphrase: Big if true. If true, this finding has considerable implications for everyone involved in the pollination chain.
There’s no doubt that thousands of soon-to-be-dead-out hives are loaded onto trucks and shipped out to California each year. Some growers shrug at the idea of paying for a dead hive here and a weak hive there. To some, that’s just part of the game. In my view, if you’re worried you pay too much for pollination, you should also be worried that 100% of your workforce isn’t clocked in.
Everybody benefits from fewer dead outs among the almonds in February. Beekeepers avoid paying a hefty sum to ship empty boxes round-trip. Growers enjoy having a full-strength workforce that cost them a pretty penny to hire. If 5% of all hives fail to survive the trip to California, growers spend roughly $19 million each year on non-viable hives. Similarly, beekeepers dish out millions to truck those hives back and forth.
These inefficiencies in the pollination market make everyone, including the end consumer, worse off. The total cost to produce an almond is inflated. Growers rent 2+ hives per acre to insure against the risk of poor weather during pollination—but look at what happened this year. The weather in February was remarkably crappy, and yet many growers are reporting an excellent nut set.
I want to point out that this study is rather limited—it only examines 10 hives on a single truckload traveling from North Dakota to California. There are tons of variables like place of origin, route selection, travel distance and weather that weren’t tested. I’d like to see this study repeated on a larger scale to see how these variables come into play. Still, this study moves the needle towards a better understanding of the dynamics at play with trucking bees.
In my previous post, I introduced the concept of BPUs, or Bee Power Units, as I like to call them. The basic idea is to measure the heat emitted by a bee colony to calculate the number of bees inside. I also introduced the method of using infrared imaging to measure heat, which is what I’ll be diving into in this blog.
Much like how bees’ ability to see in ultraviolet allows them to see things not visible to us humans, the other side of the spectrum (literally) allows us to view things we couldn’t otherwise see through human eyes. In case my pun wasn’t obvious enough, I’m talking about infrared light.
Bio (or, B-eye-o) hacking
For those of you who wish to one day see infrared light through your own eyes, there's hope! A laboratory at the University of Science and Technology in China has discovered a way for mammals to see in infrared. By injecting nano-particles into the eyes of mice, researchers enabled the mice to see in infrared. As cool as this sounds, I’m not quite ready to inject nano-particles into my eyes. You gotta walk before you can run. Fortunately, there exists technology that gives us humans the capability to see in Infrared with absolutely zero eyeball injections required. They call this technology "infrared cameras".
In case you haven't been following our recent activity, infrared imaging is kind of our thing. Specifically, our product Verifli analyzes infrared images of beehives in order to calculate the strength of the colony within.
Seeing things in a different light
So! Now that we've got the cool Sci-Fi stuff out of the way, let’s take a peek at some images:
Can you tell the difference? Probably! Hive B shows a little more red/orange than the other, which means there's more heat coming out of it. Naturally, since all animals (and objects in general) radiate infrared energy, the more of an animal/object you pack into a space, the more heat radiates to the space's surface area.
You've experienced this phenomenon firsthand if you've ever been in an over-crowded room that felt more and more stuffy as more people filed in. If you took an Infrared image from outside that room before and after it filled up with sweaty bodies, you'd see a difference in the temperature of the walls. Same thing happens inside a beehive: more bees, more surface heat.
How about this next picture; which of the two hives do you think has more bees?
This one's a little tougher to tell. Hive C appears to be slightly warmer in the first honey super. But the heat in Hive D's brood boxes looks a little less "splotchy" than Hive C... So it's a wash then, right? Basically the same number of bees in each hive?
Wrong! There are roughly 7.5 more frames of bees in Hive C than there are in Hive D. That's a difference of over 10,000 bees. That's nearly 3 thousand extra foraging bees out pollinating your flowers.
So what's our takeaway here? Well, by simply glancing at these pictures, there's no way the human eye could possibly tell how many bees are within the hive. That's where we come in.
But you might say “Gleb! If we can't tell the difference, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of using heat as a metric for colony strength?” To that I say, “Nope.”
The method of measuring colony size via "frame counts" has been established by the UC Extension office for quite some time now. As I discussed in my previous post, this method entails peeking between two brood boxes and estimating how many frames are covered with bees. From both personal experience and from launching Verifli this February, we found that taking frame counts is not only tedious and arduous, it tends to be extremely unreliable.
On top of that, time of day has a significant effect on the cluster size in a colony. If you take a frame count when it’s early morning and still a little chilly, the bees will be clustered tightly over fewer frames to retain heat. Later in the day, the cluster will loosen up and spread out across more frames as the weather gets warmer. But at that point in the day, thousands of foragers will have left the hive to collect nectar and pollen.
The physics are complex, but the algebra is simple: by measuring a hive's heat signature with infrared, we can calculate the number of bees inside. Notice that this equation removes the potential for human error.
Frankly, after 2 or 3 hundred frame counts, they all start to look the same. With Verifli, there's no ballpark estimates or fatigue after grading hundreds of hives in a day.