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.
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.
Each year, roughly two million beehives are trucked in to California for almond pollination. Do you ever wonder where all those bees are actually coming from? Well, you may be surprised to learn that not only do they head down from the summer honey haven of the Dakotas, many hives begin the trek from as far away as Florida! Now, Florida’s a hefty 2,900-mile road trip away from California. That’s a long way to go!
Most of the bees get loaded up for shipment in the fall, just before the weather gets too cold and the bees shut down for the winter. Beekeepers will do some last minute "quality assurance" checks to make sure only the best bees make the journey out west. Those who don't reach the Golden State before Christmas will take part in a mad rush to get them dropped in the orchards in time for the almond pollination.
Bee trucking math
For the top ten states that ship bees to California for almond pollination, it can cost anywhere from $1,360--if you're coming from nearby Oregon--to over $8,000! Floridian beekeepers enjoy one of the country's best climates for keeping bees, but they dish out the big bucks to truck their bees for pollination. And that’s just a one-way ticket.
Not only do beekeepers in Florida have to pay extra for their bee transport, but they also need to carefully navigate strict state laws governing interstate bee travel. Bee Culture recounts a tale of how one Florida beekeeper got himself in trouble over all the red tape involved.
Despite the high cost, bees are still being sent from Florida out to California each year because the high pollination prices are still worth the trucking expense. But as the supply of agriculture truckers continues to dwindle, that may not be the case any longer. Uncertainty over new regulations like the Electronic Logging Device Mandate (ELD) left some beekeepers wondering whether the cost of trucking would spike. For now, agriculture truckers are exempt from the ELD mandate and Hours of Service limitations, but who knows if or when that may change.
It's just one more thing to keep an eye on as the almond industry continues to grow and the logistical challenges become increasingly strained.
For the final post in our series covering our new direction (links to part 1 & part 2), I’d like to share my thoughts on how it all went.
Our team spent months planning out every meticulous detail to deliver Verifli to our customers. Since pollination season last just a few short weeks, we had to work around a very small window with no time for mistakes. If you’ve ever experienced a product launch, you know there are a lot of emotions involved, whether you’re the customer or the one launching the product.
For me, it was interesting to reflect on what the experience felt like before, during, and after product launch. Here are some of my quick journal-entry style notes:
By the numbers
To wrap up, here are some eye-popping stats from our 20-day stint in California:
Last week, I wrote about why we decided to pursue a new direction. Now I want to give you a behind-the-scenes look at how we did it. Strap yourselves in, this one’s a bit longer than usual.
Our “Aha!” moment was liberating, but it introduced a new set of challenges. Almond pollination only happens once a year, and at the time of our “Aha!” moment, the next pollination season was less than 10 months away. We had to get something out there, otherwise we’d wait 22 months until bringing new revenue in the door.
With less than a year to build something our target market was willing to pay for, we had to focus. As much as we wanted to develop that beautiful product we envisioned, complete with all the fancy bells and whistles, there simply wasn’t enough time.
We couldn’t afford to be good at all the things—we had to be exceptional at one or two important things. We narrowed in on two guiding principles: the product had to be accurate and it had to be faster than manual inspections.
Much of our time during the development phase was spent on customer discovery. We found a handful of almond growers who weren’t annoyed by our monthly phone calls. These folks were our sounding board. They would tell us if we were still on the right track or whether a course-correction was needed. Ultimately, we had to strike a balance between what they told us and what was achievable.
Accuracy is our first guiding principle for a good purpose. If it’s not accurate, it doesn’t matter how fast the product works. Before we began to think about building speedy software, we started outlining the predictive hive strength model.
The first step towards building an accurate model is to gather data. From May to November, several times a week, we’d set out at the crack of dawn to image hives under infrared. Over the course of this time, we’d end up capturing tens of thousands of infrared images. But it wasn’t as simple as taking a photo and moving on. There were a lot of variables to test in order to find what produced the best results.
That leads into a story about one of my wildest experiences in my 3+ years with The Bee Corp. In order to test the accuracy of our model over time, we conducted a handful of "marathon" data collection studies. This entailed capturing IR images of the same hives every few minutes over the course of several hours.
One muggy summer night, I was tasked with doing a marathon study all by myself from dusk to dawn. I loaded up Ellie’s car with enough sugary snacks and Red Bull to cause a heart murmur and set out to our bee yard tucked away in the rolling hills of Southern Indiana. No cell reception, no WiFi signal, no escape from the dense humidity; just me and all the bugs you can imagine.
I wish I could say it was eventful. It wasn’t. It became a dreary routine: pause my podcast, turn on the camera, grab my flashlight, exit the car, take photo 1, photo 2… get back in the car, shut off the camera, play my podcast for 10 minutes and repeat. By the time the sun came up, there was a visible rut in the grass from tracing the same path 50 plus times that night.
The worst part honestly wasn’t even all that bad. Running on 20+ hours without sleep and with tablespoons of sugar and caffeine coursing through my veins, paranoia set in rapidly. Anytime I heard a strange noise in the woods, I was certain an axe murderer or a grizzly bear was just steps away. But I had a secret weapon: my infrared camera. Equipped with the superpower of night vision, I had confidence that I’d be able to get the jump on any bears looking for a quick snack.
A fun note: I ended up doing 2 overnight marathon studies, once in August and again in October. The second time was during Game 3 of the ALDS—and I’m a HUGE Red Sox fan. In the middle of the woods I was somehow able to tune into Nate Eovaldi and the Sox dish out the most lopsided pounding in Yankees postseason history 😊.
Thanks for sticking through to the end on this one. I hope you enjoyed it. Check back next week to read about Ellie’s takeaways from the February launch.