California Almond Pollination
The pollination of almonds in California is the single largest pollination event in the world. About 90% of the USA's almonds come from CA, and almost 80% of the world's almonds come from CA. It is the only place they are grown in America, and one of the only places they can grow in the world.
With bees, almond orchards can yield 2,000-3,000 lbs per acre. Without bees, that drops to a few hundred pounds per acre. That's where we come in as beekeepers. Almost every commercially available hive in the US is needed to pollinate the vast & ever growing almond crop. When bee shortages began to hit about 10 years ago, prices paid per hive rose steadily. Today, they range from $185-$200+ per hive, thus making almond pollination the largest single source of income, and an essential part of most commercial beekeeping operations. With the price for bulk USA honey lower than we've seen in many years, almond pollination is even more critical for the survival of most beekeeping businesses.
Most hives are transported to CA in late January, where they remain until the almond trees finish blooming in mid-March. Virtually nothing else is blooming that time of year in most regions of the USA. Plus, almond pollen is fantastic for bees. Combined with warm weather, bees can grow rapidly most years. There are cold & wet years, and there is a huge difference in temperatures depending on where in the central valley bees are located. The almond groves stretch from Bakersfield to a few hours north of Sacramento.
One of the greatest challenges for beekeepers is to ensure their hives are strong enough in late January to "make grade." Almond growers are understandably concerned with the strength of the hives they are renting to pollinate their crops.
The most common contract asks for a 5 frame minimum & an 8 frame average. This means that any hive less than 5 deep frames of bees will not be paid for. The 8 frame average means that the hives in each orchard should, once averaged, be at least 8 deep frames covered front and back with bees. To verify this, growers often hire third party inspectors to look at 10%-15% of the hives in an orchard, count frames of bees, and average the count to ensure the contract terms are being met.
Hives being stolen is a concern, but is somewhat rare overall. And, typically only a few hives are stolen from each orchard. Advances in GPS tracking for hives is helping deter, or catch bee thieves. The future continues to look bright for almond pollination. Continued planting should ensure prices climb with time