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.
Long time no see, Bee Word readers! If you couldn’t tell from the radio silence on our end, we’ve been extraordinarily busy the past few months. To catch you up in one sentence: we’ve been wrapping up the finishing touches for Verifli, our new digital hive grading product, in preparation for launch next month.
I’ll start by wishing you a happy 2019! The stage is set for another year of record growth at The Bee Corp. We hope you tag along for an exciting ride! Onto the good stuff:
2019 almond pollination price per hive
It’s that scary time of year once again, folks. That’s right, it’s almond pollination season. The time when one question lingers on everyone’s mind: what will go wrong this year? Usually followed by this question: am I paying/charging a fair price for pollination?
We polled a handful of almond growers. Here’s what they're paying per hive:
Just for reference, we know that Joe Traynor is charging $240 this year. Rule of thumb: if you’re paying more than this and you’re not 100% certain that you’ve got the best bees on the planet, you’re doing something wrong.
Two things to keep in mind here. First, don’t take this information as gospel—this is only meant to be a useful reference. There’s a good chance our data is not representative of industry-wide data. So please don’t dial up your beekeeper or your grower and ask for a better rate because of what you read here.
Second (and most importantly), you get what you pay for when it comes to pollination. You might feel envious of your buddy down the street who’s only paying $150 per hive until it’s the 20th of February and he’s complaining that only a quarter of his bees have been placed. If you want to avoid a stressful pollination season, give your beekeeper an incentive to deliver excellent bees.
1. Average price per hive is almost $200.
That’s a big deal. As rates continue to climb above $200 and growers begin look for new places to trim expenses, we’ll start to see consequences.
Big growers will begin to rip out trees in favor of planting Independence, Shastas or an entirely different crop. Small growers will stop renting bees altogether and poach their neighbors’ bees by blasting their trees with attractants. Growers with middle-aged Nonpareil orchards will scramble to cut costs and explore alternatives to honeybee pollination.
2. Almond growers will rent more than 2 million hives for the first time ever.
This is also a big deal. The U.S. bee population—roughly 2.7 million hives—will not grow any time soon. I’m willing to bet it’ll be the same, if not lower, ten years from now. If you think you’re paying too much for pollination now, wait until almonds surpass 1.3 million bearing acres.
Something else is going on here that’s worth noting. As much as I hate to admit, beekeepers aren’t getting any younger. Here’s what I fear might happen in the next decade:
With these market forces in mind, it’s clear that the market for pollination will undergo a drastic facelift in the next decade. If one thing can be said about almond growers, they're a resilient and opportunistic bunch. Although the same can be said about beekeepers, their path forward is a bit more challenging. Almond growers own land in one of the most fertile regions on the planet. Beekeepers own wooden boxes filled with high-maintenance insects that aren’t very versatile in terms of economic production.
If the almond industry collapsed tomorrow, who would be hurt the most: almond growers or beekeepers? The answer should be crystal clear.
2019 is a big year for almond pollination. And not just because I want to bestow a false sense of grandeur to this blog post. This is the year we zoom past 1 million bearing acres and 2 million rented hives. In my opinion, the market for almond pollination is on the verge of a radical inflection point.
P.S. If you haven't done so yet, please check out the latest version of Almond Board's handy guide: Honeybee Best Management Practices.
Well...ok...the drones are not ‘killing’ the pollination business just yet. But, since my last post on drone pollination, I’ve found some other alternative pollinators that are trying to find a place in the pollination market. Perhaps these drones will help alleviate bee supply issues some growers are facing.
In North Carolina, Thomas Parish IV and his team have built the Poli-X2 drone, which pollinates more similarly to bees (unlike the Pollinator Bot, referenced in my previous blog post). The Poli-X2 has been testing in local gardens since 2017. One of the biggest challenges they faced in developing their model was inhibiting the device from lurching forward when flying in for flower pollination. From what I can see in the video footage, it looks like they’ve done a pretty good job with this.
Their model is not designed to replace bees, but to supplement the pollination done by existing bees. The drone uses artificial intelligence to scan for pre-programmed species of flowers, including tree flowers. At this time, the images being collected from the device are being sent via WiFi to a nearby PC where decisions are made regarding which plants to pollinate. Later development plans are to install this decision-making software within the device... that’s what we call edge computing, good ol' IoT (internet of things).
The Bee Corp is headed to the Forbes AgTech Summit next month in Indianapolis, and fellow attendee and panelist Anna Haldewang has been working on her own pollination drone, Plan Bee, which she first devised for a product design course at the Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia.
The drone is controlled by a smart device and has six sections on its underside that suck pollen from the flowers it hovers over. The pollen is later expelled for cross-pollination. It’s innovative…and, yes, I’m going to say it...it’s so darn cute! Art and Engineering combined!
Now, there are other ways of getting flowering crops pollinated... such as literally dropping a whole mess of pollen from the sky. Dropcopter, the aptly-named startup with offices in New York & San Francisco, has developed a drone to do just that. Some test results show that the Dropcopter drones can increase "pollination rates" between 25-60% in almonds & cherries, depending on weather conditions.
It's unclear how they measure pollination rate—perhaps it's the number of times each flower is visited by bees? Regardless, I applaud this no-frills approach.
But if you want to get REALLY heavy-handed with the pollination, you can give the guys from Pollen-Tech a call. This Arizona-based AgTech startup doesn’t use drones in its operation, but an electrostatic spray technology to mist almond trees during pollination season. Initial field test results showed a 6.55% increase in crop yield over untreated control-group trees. The electrostatic charge helps the pollen become attracted to the stigma of the flowers, increasing the efficiency of the process, without significant pollen loss.
It’s great to see all of these technological innovations in the works. For the near future, these methods are only equipped to supplement what the busy bees are doing in their pollination efforts. And they could help give growers some peace of mind when aren’t able to book the bevy of bees they need to get their crops pollinated. Exciting times for AgTech!
Small-scale beekeepers are part of a thriving community that so heavily relies on cooperation and mentorship. Hobbyists and sideliners go out of their way to teach others, support local clubs and help newbies get off the ground. Yet as operations scale into the hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of hives, a different community appears to emerge. A community that doesn’t always feel so cooperative.
There are plenty of good reasons for why large-scale beekeepers hold their cards close to their chests. For one, these beekeepers aren’t doing it for fun; commercial beekeepers need to be competitive because, like any business, their livelihood is at stake. Taking an aspiring commercial beekeeper under your wing to show them the ropes could create a monster that eventually eats into your business.
Other factors have to do with the nature of the job. Beekeepers don’t spend their time in an office making calls, connecting and networking with clients and vendors. Beekeepers—even the big guys—are out working the bees every day. They need all hands on deck, otherwise the work won’t get done. It’s difficult to set aside a couple hours to show a new guy how to move through hundreds of hives in a day.
Beekeepers are isolated. Major operations are often located in the middle of nowhere. Even if one can arrange to spend a few days shadowing with a commercial beekeeper, driving up to Musselshell, Montana can be a major pain.
Beekeepers spend far more time with bees than with people. This point may sound obvious, but it’s easy for isolated beekeepers to develop a bit of tunnel vision. Working bees is a practice in observation. Spending months on end observing nothing but your bees can cause one to forget that there are others out in the trenches going through the same struggles.
How can we contribute?
Here’s my point: the commercial beekeeping community is too shut-off. We need more large-scale beekeepers to embrace the small beekeepers’ model of cooperation and mentorship if we expect the next generation to carry this industry into the future.
Here are a few simple things we can all do to pitch in:
Before I sign off, I should point out that there are many exceptions. Off the top of my head, I can spout off more than 20 big-time beekeepers whose contributions to the community far outweigh what they ask in return. Expect a follow-up post from me spotlighting some of the truly altruistic beekeepers who are devoted to building our community.
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!