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.
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!
Imagine this: it’s a beautiful Thursday afternoon. You’re sitting on the porch, enjoying a cool breeze, rocking back and forth in a hand-crafted red cherry rocking chair. Suddenly, your serenity dissipates as your phone *dings* with a notification: “You’re running low on eggs in your fridge, would you like me to order another dozen?” This is the world we live in today.
The basics of IoT
The concept of the Internet of Things has been floating around since as early as 1982. Carnegie Mellon University pioneered a modified Coke machine, capable of reporting its inventory and the temperature of its drinks. At the time, this was thought of as groundbreaking technology, but now it’s everywhere. Your smart refrigerator tells you when to pick up groceries, your Fitbit alerts you when your heartrate reaches dangerous levels, and your driver assist warns you when there’s a car in your blind spot. All these items are part of a concept known as the Internet of Things (IoT for short).
At a basic level, IoT is a network that delivers information to decision-makers as soon as an event occurs. This information may be used to inform us when an issue exists (like when a traffic light is broken), collect data to help us understand processes (like how much of a certain input you’ve used), connect humans, monitor areas, you name it. Currently, there are over 8 billion connected devices on the planet, and this number is continuing to rise.
IoT or IoBee?
IoT is a major buzz word these days, and the limitless applications can be exciting, but likewise, such fast-paced advancement in technology can be overwhelming. You may have heard about how Amazon is working on IoT wristbands to track employees. Is this a scary “Big Brother” tactic designed to punish slackers, or a wise business strategy aimed at maximizing efficiency?
Despite the apparent privacy risks, IoT creates possibilities that can help to make our lives easier and make businesses more efficient. Industries that deal with gigantic stocks of inventory use IoT to find where things are stored, how much is there and how long it’s been in storage. Agriculture producers use IoT to monitor things like irrigation pumps and soil nutrients. This raises the question: how can beekeepers benefit from adopting IoT?
Think about what information helps you manage your bees. Wouldn’t it be useful to know when a nectar flow or a dearth has just started? How about if you got a notification when a honey-bound colony is about to swarm? What if you could track what kind of honey was being produced based on the nectar sources the bees were visiting? There are countless IoT applications that could help beekeepers better manage their hives.
Beekeepers today face many problems whose solutions may be just around the corner, in the form of IoT. In years past, issues like short battery life and shoddy communication networks (like 4G LTE and Bluetooth) made IoT applications too costly and unreliable for certain industries, but those issues are rapidly being solved.
We’re at a point where some of our crazy ideas—like, “what if my queens could tell me how many eggs they’re laying each day”—might actually be possible. This is an exciting time to start thinking about how we could use IoT to solve some of the problems beekeepers face on a daily basis.
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.