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.
To follow-up on my last post that looked back at two decades of almond pollination, I want to offer some thoughts about where the industry’s at right now. I’ll focus this post on the current situation and hold off on discussing where the industry’s headed until my next post.
Back in 2005, Joe Traynor warned us that “the real crunch for bees will come in a few years when bearing almond acreage hits 730,000 acres.” We eclipsed that number in 2009, and 10 years later we’re sitting on 1,170,000 bearing acres with another 300K non-bearing. With new trees being planted faster than ever, you have to wonder: will the bubble ever burst?
As we all know, the problem isn’t with demand for almonds—they sell like hotcakes that have a longer shelf life. The problem is with the finite resources required to produce the nuts, most importantly, bees and water.
I always chuckle when I read things online about how people should boycott almonds or that vegans shouldn’t eat them because they’re “harmful” to bees. In reality, almonds are the reason why beekeepers can afford to treat for mites 5, 6, even 7 times a year. If beekeepers only had honey revenue to rely on, bees would be in serious trouble.
But the additional revenue from pollination isn’t enough to grow the commercial beekeeping industry to meet the consumer demand for almonds. After all, the costs of extra mite treatments and added labor basically wipe out any profits for beekeepers.
There’s no reliable estimate for the total number of beehives in the U.S., but it’s somewhere near 2.6 million. If almond pollination requires 2 hives per acre, quick math tells us that we only have the capacity to pollinate 1.3 million acres if we deploy every single hive in the nation. Keep in mind, there are nearly 1.5 million acres of almond trees currently in the ground.
Advantages of almonds
Aside from being highly nutritious, almonds are a strategically sound crop because they have an excellent shelf life. Compared to the fruits and veggies that grow alongside them in the Central Valley, there’s no real rush to get almonds to the end consumer. That’s a huge perk for growers—who can afford to play the market and sell when prices are high—and for retailers—who can get the product on their shelves at a lower cost.
Along the supply chain, almonds also offer environmental benefits. Unlike fruits and veggies that are susceptible to crushing and bruising, almonds can be piled high without reducing their value. There’s no need for plastic clamshell containers or refrigerated shipping units for almonds to stay fresh before they reach the end consumer.
Here’s another chart from that study I linked above. This one compares water footprint to nutritional value. Notice how the most water-intensive crops are the ones with the longest shelf life?
The continued growth of the almond industry is a complex issue. Almonds are a nutritious food that can reach end consumers with relatively little environmental impact. Consumers demand more and more almonds each year, so expanding production makes sense.
Except for the fact that the two most critical inputs for production are in increasingly short supply. I’m not saying the Central Valley is about to run out of water, nor am I suggesting or that the nation is on the verge of a bee apocalypse. I’m simply noting that the availability of water and bees is not compatible with consumer demand for almonds.
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.
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.