Mar 1, 2023Almond farmers not skimping on bees
Even after a bruising year of lower earnings, crop losses and soaring production costs, California almond growers may not be willing to cut corners pollinating their trees this season.
That’s good news for beekeepers who rent their hives to pollinate crops and whose insects rely on blossoming almond trees as the winter’s first major source of pollen to build their colonies.
About 90% of all U.S. honeybees are in California this time of year pollinating the nuts, according to the University of California, Davis. The pollinators come from all over the country, as there are not enough local bees to cover the state’s 1.64 million acres of almond trees. Farmers usually use about two colonies per acre.
But with state almond acreage down for the first time in 25 years and some 60,400 acres removed as of last summer, “there was a lot of talk” about whether there would be an oversupply of bees this season and whether beekeepers would need to lower prices, said Philip Russell of Strachan Apiaries in Sutter County.
Market prices for almonds have been largely unprofitable for growers during the past three years as exports fell due to shipping challenges and inflation pushed production costs to record levels. Water shortages due to the multiyear drought added to growers’ problems, with some abandoning orchards and ripping out trees.
Growers are looking for ways to cut costs, Russell said, and some may be shopping around for lower-priced bees. But he noted his operation didn’t lose any accounts this year and has gotten inquiries from growers looking for bees.
“I don’t think much has changed. I think the demand is still there,” said Russell, who serves as president of the California State Beekeepers Association.
The season may have started out with extra bees, said Imperial County beekeeper Brock Ashurst, but the surplus appears to have evaporated. He said he gets calls “every day from someone looking for bees.” He said some colonies may not have been as robust as first thought, and now some growers are scrambling to add bees to shore up orchards with weaker hives.
Ashurst noted his operation is down by about a thousand colonies this year. Even with orchard removals, he said other trees are coming into production, and that has held up overall demand for bees.
Because of the symbiotic relationship they have with almond growers, beekeepers say they are aware of the economic challenges their clients face. For this reason, Ashurst said he decided to keep his prices the same as last year—at $195 per hive. He noted beekeepers he knows also have not raised prices, even though their own expenses have gone up, with fuel and labor being two of the highest.
“I think everyone understands the pressure that the almond growers are going through right now,” Ashurst said. “We depend on them a lot, so we understand what they’re facing.”
Though there has been “very little” tree removal among his clients, Tulare County beekeeper Steve Godlin said he did lose business in a few orchards this year, but his growers have maintained their bee stocking rate. All his bees have been rented, with 14,000 hives sitting in orchards since before Valentine’s Day. Almond pollination is expected to wrap up around March 15.
Godlin started the season with about a $32,000 loss after 84 of his hives were stolen. He lamented how bee thefts have now become a yearly problem for beekeepers. Even though he uses GPS trackers in his equipment, there’s not nearly enough to cover all of it. He estimated he’s lost some 600 hives to theft in 46 years in business.
“People are trying to be on the lookout, but it’s like a needle in a haystack with that many acres of trees all up and down the state,” Godlin said.
With the winter rains the state has received, Godlin said he’s hopeful there will be enough forage and wildflowers to make a decent honey crop this year. He said he’s also hoping the price of honey will stay up, as a good crop and higher prices would help offset his “sky high” input costs.
Due to the current economics of almonds and ongoing water restrictions, Greg Meyers, who farms in western Fresno County, said he sees “lots and lots of acres” around him that are being removed or have been removed. He said growers in his area are definitely cutting back on bees this year, among other costs. He himself has been removing older blocks of almonds since 2020, and this year he’s letting another 300 acres go by not putting out any bees.
“Looking at the market, why farm to lose money?” he said.
Despite water-allocation improvements announced by government water officials last week, Meyers said the 35% of contracted water supplies is still “not nearly enough to farm a crop on.” He noted buying water on the open market last year cost almost $2,000 an acre-foot, which was unaffordable when he was earning $1.20 per pound for his almonds.
He said he’s trying to cut costs, and one area where he’s managed to save some money is in orchards where he planted Shasta almonds, a self-pollinating variety that requires fewer bees. He said he still places one to one-and-a-half hives per acre on those blocks, as “you get one shot at pollination.” On his traditional varieties, he typically uses three hives per acre, but he reduced them this year to two-and-a-half hives on older blocks.
Fresno County grower Jamie Bledsoe, who farms in Riverdale, said he has not yet had to cut back on water because his farm has good access to groundwater. His biggest problem, he said, is with almond prices, which have dropped to “below profitable levels.”
He said he’s “doing the bare minimum to get by” on inputs, but he has continued the practice of using two to two-and-a-half hives per acre for pollination. After losing 8% to 12% of his crop last year from the freeze, he said he’s trying to protect yields as much as he can, including applying fungicide before the rain last week.
“Everything looks really good right now, so we’ve just got to see how the bloom goes and how well the bees fly,” he said. “We’ll know in a month or so.”
Ray Henriques, farming manager for Stewart and Jasper Orchards, an almond grower and processor in Stanislaus County, said the company also has not changed its approach to pollination and is sticking with the recommended two hives per acre.
“Yield is the key,” he said. “Our first responsibility is to produce as many almonds as we can.”
— Ching Lee, assistant editor of Ag Alert/California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be contacted at email@example.com.