A Trip to the Almonds in California

Reader Contribution by Kim Flottum
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I took a break from Ohio winter and traveled to California this month to take in the biggest agricultural event in the Universe…The Pollination Of The Almond Crop.

How big? In the central and northern valley in California there’s 750,000 acres of producing almond orchards. Add in another 100,000 acres that are coming on line and you have a crop that’s bigger than the state of Rhode Island. Those blooming acres need two colonies each for ample pollination and nut set, which comes to 1.5 million colonies needed for pollination. There’s only about 400,000, maybe fewer, colonies in California, so the rest come to the almonds sometime before the crop blooms in early February. It is the major migration of honey bee colonies on the planet and happens beginning in October or so each fall, continuing right up to almond bloom the first week in February or so.

Since there’s only about 2.6 million colonies in the country, that amounts to nearly 60% of all the bees in the U. S. are in California’s almond orchards right now. This is, without doubt, the most incredible bee-flower event…ever.

Beekeepers from the Midwest usually bring their colonies to California before the snow flies and put them in holding yards…vast, empty acres that are good for little else because nothing, and I mean nothing, grows there. And nothing grows there because there isn’t the water necessary to produce a crop, a flush of wild flowers, or even ground cover.

And once the bees move into the almonds, there isn’t anything to visit except almonds, so they do get the best of the bees all during bloom…providing the weather holds…which is mostly, but not always does.

We traveled from Bakersfield in the south of the San Joaquin valley to Chico, in the northern part of the Sacramento valley, visiting beekeepers, pollination brokers, colony inspectors, The Blue Diamond headquarters, the California Almond Board, and some queen and package operations. You might wonder how all of this applies to a backyard beekeeper, and you might even think that these folks are the reason there are so many problems in the industry with sick bees, industrial beekeeping and the like, but it is a genuine form of agriculture, without which much of the food you eat on a daily basis would not exist – not just almonds. It is, as they say, a necessary part of the picture, and beekeepers, almond growers and all those who depend on both of them are working to solve the problems that have arisen in the past 25 years…not only because of this, but the introduction of non-native pests, new insecticides, and the continued loss of forage, all which have taken a significant toll on the industry, too.

Included this time are a few photos from the early part of the journey. If you’d like more detail check out Bee Culture’s blog, or sign up for Bee Culture magazine. It’s an Almond Odyssey and it’s one heck of an adventure.