Some Iowa beekeepers make more money by taking their bees to California to pollinate almond trees in the winter, but that’s literally no longer the case with the drought on the West Coast.
“Some of the old orchards are falling apart,” said Phil Ebert, 80, founder of Ebert Honey, with operations in Mount Vernon and Lynnville. “We have lost our place there and I don’t know if we can find another place.”
California, which produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds, has long relied on honey bees for pollination because most almond tree species are not self-pollinating, said Josette Lewis, chief scientific officer of the California Almond Board.
California beekeepers provide about one-third of the bees for almond pollination, but since almonds have grown in popularity over the past 25 years and since the pollination window is only about a month, California almond growers must hire beekeepers from Other states are hiring.
“It’s been an increasingly attractive feature for beekeepers,” Lewis told the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
Not only do almond growers pay about $200 per bee colony for the season, but the bees that help pollinate the almonds receive pollen and nectar much earlier in the season than the bees that overwinter in Iowa. .
“The real benefit is that when the bees come home, the boxes are full,” Ebert said. This means she can divide the hive to form more colonies and increase honey production.
But three years into the drought, California’s 2022 almond harvest is estimated to be 11 percent lower than last year, with a projected yield of 1,900 pounds per acre — the lowest since the 2022 U.S. Department of Agriculture report released in July. The year is 2009.
“Almond producers are in a painful situation where we have limited water resources and if you do get water, you pay a higher price as well as higher input costs,” Lewis said. “All this has happened at a time when almond prices have been really low, mainly because of supply chain issues.”
NPR reported that California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which takes effect in 2021, prohibits farmers and others from over-pumping water from aquifers.
That law and other market forces have caused some California almond growers to remove trees, Lewis said.
“We’ve seen a small increase in almond orchard removals, probably as a result of the drought,” he said. There are certain areas of the state that will face long-term water restrictions. Going forward, this is something we will continue to watch as we head into another profitable year.”
Fewer acres of almonds means less need for bee pollinators.
The Eberts have moved honey bees to California for the past four years, moving hundreds of colonies to almond orchards in November or December to prepare the bees for almond pollination in February and March.
If they can’t find a place in California, the Eberts may take their bees to Texas. Ebert said they don’t get paid there, but the bees start pollinating in January compared to March or April in Iowa. In both states, the Eberts must go out in January and early February to feed the bees and maintain the hives.
“I’m still trying to get them to California,” said Adam Ebert, one of Phil’s sons. “Almond pollination is very good.”
The USDA announced this week that it is resuming a survey of farmers to see who uses bee pollination and how much it costs.
Lewis said data from the survey, which was discontinued in 2018 due to USDA budget constraints, will help producers develop their budgets and provide documentation for crop insurance.
USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service has mailed questionnaires to about 16,000 producers and will begin collecting data immediately, the agency said. The report, to be released in January, will include data from the 2017 and 2022 surveys, including pollinated acres paid, price per acre, colonies used, price per colony and total pollination value per crop.