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.
Here at The Bee Corp, we try to see eye-to-eye with everyone we work with. More often than not, that's easier said than done. Especially when it comes to our bees.
Seeing what's not there
Human eyes transform 2D images into a 3D images much like the way an artist would paint a scene. When you look at Leonardo da Vinci’s infamous Mona Lisa, you can tell Mona is up close relative to the background. But the painting is in 2 dimensions on a single piece of flat canvas, how can that be? As it turns out, our brain infers depth and distance by literally tricking itself into seeing depth, which is why optical illusions work so well.
However, what’s more interesting is that bees are capable of being tricked by the very same things we can get tricked by. Recently, scientists found that a bee’s vision functions much like a human’s, and they are able to infer depth based on their brains tricking them as well. However, our fuzzy little friends have one small advantage over humans: their vision works in the ultraviolet spectrum.
Show me the honey
What does it mean to view ultraviolet light? This image gives an idea of how bees see a yellow flower.
A. Shows how humans see a yellow flower
B. Same flower through UV light
C. Captured through an array of straws to simulate insect compound vision
D. Shows a merge of the pictures processed on the computer and gives an idea of how a bee might see a flower.
Putting an ultraviolet light to a flower reveals certain parts that you normally wouldn’t see. For example, certain flowers are white in visible light, but become dark under ultraviolet. This same mechanism helps attract bees to certain flowers, by having a blue/Ultra-violet halo around the center of the flower, usually where the pistil and stamen are located for pollination. These concepts allow bees to maximize honey production by prioritizing which flowers to visit.
Seeing the future?
For humans to gain a better understanding of issues facing bees, perhaps we should view their issues in a different light. Research into flowers under ultraviolet light taught us many things, like which flowers to plant in pollinator gardens to attract bees.
But what about the other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum? Learning more about bees through other light wavelengths like infrared light, X-ray and radio waves could yield valuable findings about how these complex creatures interact with the world around them.
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.
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!
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.