Ah, fall. The leaves are changing, the weather’s getting chilly, and the bees are wrapping up their last few jobs before the winter.
Back in the office though, beekeepers and growers aren’t slowing down. Yep, it’s that lovely time of year when everyone starts to worry about almond pollination.
Pollination prep done right
For those of us who are sending bees to California for the first time, there are a lot of things to consider before loading the trucks. First, I strongly recommend you review Joe Traynor’s articles on almond pollination. Joe’s been brokering hives for decades, and he’s the best resource out there on the topic.
When it comes down to negotiating price, now is the best time to reach an agreement with your grower. Don’t wait until it’s time to cut a check to haggle on price.
If you agree to do an inspection, figure out who’s paying for it, who’s actually doing it (either a state inspector or a private company), and when you want it done (early season hive strength results will be different from late season).
Maximize value for your grower
Keep in mind that while almond pollination is a pivotal time of year for you, your grower has a different perspective. They don’t care so much about the details—they just want the job done right and done on time. These are the top items on your grower’s mind:
Communication is absolutely essential. You need to tell your grower ASAP if you’re concerned about meeting one or more of those above items. That said, you don’t want to burden your grower with issues that aren’t related to the above items. If your trucker falls through or you choose a different overwinter yard, these are problems you should resolve on your own.
Over-communication can cause growers to think you’re too high-maintenance to work with. The name of the game is long-term value. Your goal should be to show that you’re trustworthy and capable—this is how you secure contracts year over year.
On that note, you should plan to check in with your grower at least once a month to let them know how the bees are looking. Are you still on track to hit your quota? Do you still expect to hit the 8-frame average? Is there any reason they should worry about on-time delivery? Lining up more bees at the last second is a major headache, so help your grower out by giving them a clear idea of what to expect.
Almond pollination is not an easy job, otherwise it wouldn’t pay so well. The best way to avoid conflict is to set clear expectations and communicate well.
Finally, give your grower a few ways to get in touch. Repeatedly getting sent to voicemail is the fastest way to lose your contract next year.
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.
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.
Have you heard this news? Scientists in Japan have built a pollinator bot, a remote-controlled drone, that can go from flower to flower, brushing against the flower’s stamen with a horsehair paintbrush that’s covered in a sticky ionic liquid gel, both lifting off pollen from each flower as well as depositing some of that pollen on to the next. It’s a little hard to “drive”, but put Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the driver's seat and this may be the future of pollination.
But, hold on, hold on…. Let’s pump the brakes for a second here, folks. Is it even feasible at this point that these drones could take over the role of the honeybee in the pollination process?
Breaking down the numbers
Thanks to Joe Traynor's excellent analysis which inspired this post, we know about half of the foraging bees per acre (~4,000 bees) will be actively pollinating at one time. The other half will be back in the hive (or on their way back) to offload their pollen and fuel up for the next trip.
The bees end up visiting each flower multiple times during their daily foraging period, from around 10:00am to 2:00pm. The extra trips to the flowers, dropping off extra pollen, stimulates the growth of the pollen grain that did end up pollinating the flower.
Each tree has about 20,000 flowers. With 40 bees to pollinate each tree at the rate of about 10 flowers per minute, they’ll be able to pollinate about 96,000 flowers during a work day. Which equates to visiting each flower 4 to 5 times.
Comparing the costs
Now, until AI can replace a manual operator, a remote-controlled drone needs a human to control it. Let’s say a person controlling a drone is super focused and can pollinate 5 trees, lush with almond bloom, trying their best to get all the flowers nestled within the branches, in a day, at $15/hr.
Picking a winner
To get the pollination job done in the same amount of time using drones, it would cost over $100,000--more than 8 times as much as the cost of renting bees!
So, beekeepers of the world, sit back and relax for now. When it comes to pollination, the honeybee is key!
After traversing what seemed like nearly every mile of the Central Valley this month, I’m finally back in Bloomington. Wyatt got back last week, but I stuck around to attend the Forbes AgTech Summit in Salinas as part of the AgriNovus Indiana delegation, there to represent Indiana’s Agbiosciences sector. We came back with insights on how to make the first-ever Indianapolis Forbes AgTech Summit shine, but I also took the opportunity to meet with more almond growers and the Almond Board of California to continue our effort to learn about how our research and data can help the industry.
Western Growers Association Welcome Dinner
The conference kicked off in the beautiful courtyard of the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology. The people on hand represented some of the biggest names in agriculture and AgTech. The highlight of the evening for me was watching Edwin Camp, President of D.M. Camp and Sons, win the Champion of Innovation Award. Edwin is a Kern Country grower of many crops, including almonds.
Thrive Demo Day
The first morning of the conference, I attended the Thrive Demo Day for good coffee, great pitches, and even better company. I love watching other startups pitch, and always take away ideas on how to make The Bee Corp pitch stronger. My favorite world-changing idea was Re-Nuble, which turns food waste into organic fertilizer for crops. With an impressive business model that earns revenue both from the food waste collection and their end-product, Re-Nuble will be a fun company to watch.
Forbes AgTech Summit
The event was packed with talks and panels on a wide range of topics—vertical farming, blockchain, sustainability, robotics, soil health, and more. My favorite aspect was how many growers were featured in the panels. The AgTech industry exists to support growers, and I was happy to see that the Forbes organizers didn’t forget that. One interesting takeaway was how Megan Nunes of Vinsight stressed that AgTech companies need to work together through data sharing to best benefit growers.
Now it is Indiana’s turn. Kip Tom of Tom Farms was there to tee up our major announcement: the next Forbes AgTech summit, featuring innovations found across the Midwest, will be held in Indianapolis. As a board member of AgriNovus, I am excited to see the hard work of my fellow Hoosiers pay off! Agbiosciences innovation in Indiana has come such a long way, and we’re excited to get the word out: it’s happening here!
Travaille and Phippen
Another highlight of my week was experiencing the innovation along the almond value chain with a visit to Travaille and Phippen. I was impressed to see the extent of sustainability throughout the growing cycle—even the dirt and rocks that come off the field are recycled for other uses. Dave’s team had left one final last stack of hulls sitting out, and as a birder I enjoyed watching the birds forage for almond pieces that might be hidden in the mound.
In the plant we climbed up brand new machinery aimed at making the factory even more efficient. The entire process is automated; the hulling plant only requires three people to operate the machines! We spoke about how the company has needed to adapt to tariffs by shipping in-shell almonds (think pistachios)—a product with growing market demand in countries like India. We toured through the almond libraries of various USDA grades, and visited the sorting facility where humans and robots work together to quickly sort almonds from a conveyor belt. It was an immersive learning experience, and I was thankful to see the entire process from field soil prep to final product.
Almond Board of California
For the last leg of my trip, I met with folks that work in bee research for the Almond Board of California. We chatted and brainstormed about how the data we are collecting could be a key element to better understand the almond industry supply chain. I also learned about all the research and support programs driven by the Almond Board, and I enjoyed getting to know some of the folks helping beekeepers and growers work together in harmony.
I’m eager for our next trip out west, but for now I’m happy to be back with our bees in the Hoosier state.