Each year there is a great movement in the US that sparks the advent of the apicultural year made by beekeepers. Some call it the “great bee event”, the “mass migration” but most simply call it; almonds. The experience begins around 5 February ending around 15 March dependent on weather and bloom and takes place in California, USA.
Veto-pharma joined beekeepers and almond growers in February of this year to embrace this boundless event. The team was comprised of Veto-pharma French colleagues; Marcele Barthelemy (Strategic Marketing Director), Remi Pade (Innovation Projects Manager), our North American fellows; Phil Craft (NA Technical Advisor), Freddy Proni (NA Area Manager), and guided by consultant Gordon Wardell, PhD. Our week long mesmerizing adventure helped us answer questions we have posed to beekeepers, spark discussion, and listen to the needs of professionals, furthering Veto-pharma’s “Commitment to Apiculture” encouraging innovation and product development.
Beekeepers prepare for weeks and months ahead of time for almond pollination. Nutrition and population density is key as is honey bee health. Most colonies were being fed syrup, pollen supplement or substitute, and many colonies contained Apivar strips, a common effective early spring treatment amongst beekeepers in almonds. This pollination occurrence defines build-up and although bees do produce almond honey, it is used for their own nutrition, as the honey itself has a unique bitter taste not accommodating to most of our palates. The promise of almond pollination fees helps beekeepers offset their financial burden early in the season allowing for eventual hive splits and population dynamics that may lead to future crop pollination. This year, the average hive rental fee was $192 with a range from $150-$240.
California is home to the Redwood Forest, Napa Valley, and Hollywood; but soil, temperate climate, and abundant agriculture has defined this unique central geographic epicenter as some place special. It is an exceptional model as agriculture such as the Almond Board, and Beekeepers, synergistically work together and promote Best Management Practices amongst organizations aiding for the proliferation and safety of each participant.
Our trip led the team to the Central Valley, the heart of almond pollination, where the highway system and back roads were constantly adorned with fragrant almond blossoms and bees. That fragrance, is known to growers and beekeepers as the aroma of cash – although a bit comical it is a truthful sentiment. No matter where you peered, 4-way and 6-way pallets of bees flanked almond orchards in majestic placement, most standing two deeps tall, but in sight the occasional one and a half or single deep arrangement was spotted. Some boxes were branded while others depicted painted marking, and although most were painted white, some reflected the nuances of every color of the rainbow. The repetitious beauty of the bloom cannot be described in scale as a three-hour drive in a mud sanctified 4×4 pick-up truck always offered a glimpse sliver of a magnitude of orchards that is beyond comprehension. Everywhere you looked beekeepers and trucks moved like falling dominos with a steady pace engrossed in their task.
Bees from California, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas are just a few of the states represented in this migration along with different strains of bees such as Italian, Carniolan, and Buckfast. This variety and dedication tints a picture that apiculture is as vibrant as the blossoms amongst the groves. Rain and cold weather were the season’s beginning foes reducing honey bee flight days early on but regardless of the weather, teams of men and women dressed in once white, now propolis laden suits, worked amongst the squeeze of a smoker’s bellows inspecting, noting, and documenting hive populations.
These teams, better known as graders, quickly and accurately inspected hives ensuring the orchard grower and the beekeepers that hives were meeting minimum grade requirements. On average, the goal was an eight frame of bees’ population, with six as a minimum, and more than eight, well that’s a bonus which lines the pockets of beekeepers. The density of hives, the teams of graders and the way that they tackled an immense job amongst Mother Nature’s elements was awe inspiring. For our team to witness, work with, and learn from these astute teams was as sweet as the syrup being fed to the bees. We watched in amazement as structured teamwork was essential to maintain speed and accuracy. Experience, proper hive handling, and documentation of each bar-coded hive was a task achieved in seconds.
Our travels brought us to Fresno, Bakersfield, Modesto, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo and so many other remote locations in between. The time flew as fast as a forager eagerly returning home and the new relationships forged were reminiscent of the reuniting of long lost friends. Beekeepers are amazing people and the ones we met and spoke with were more than accommodating to take the time out of their very hectic and demanding days to host, work with us, and share their passions. Early on we had the opportunity to spend time with John Miller of Miller Honey Farms. His infectious appetite for honey bee health and husbandry set the beginning of our trip as together we discussed beekeeping over many open hives sharing education, stories, and laughs. As each dawn broke of each new day we worked with many more beekeepers from all over the US whose enthusiasm and openness about honey bees’ health and apicultural concerns were heard. Intermittently we would meet with almond growers learning of the great respect both growers and beekeepers have for each other’s ventures. And as the week ended, we admired the time spent with Bret Adee, American’s largest beekeeper, who has always been a champion of the industry.
The vastness of the almond orchards is mind boggling. Statistically speaking we are looking at about 2 million colonies dedicated to the task of almond pollination in 2019. This equates to approximately 3,700 tractor trailer loads of non-California bees utilizing almost two thirds of America’s documented bee colonies. Some of these colonies are built-up in the southern regions of the US while others are gently removed from a hiatus in cold storage and strengthen in holding yards that embrace tens of thousands of colonies.
Currently about 1.3 million acres of land are dedicated to almonds with close to one million bearing acres while the remaining acreage is under revitalization in preparation for new or re-newed planting. The global demand is ever increasing but the limiting factor for almond orchard growth is simply; water. The US produces over 80 percent of the world’s almonds and without apis melifera and the beekeepers who care for these amazing creatures, our indulgences in almonds and the savory products they support would not be existent.
In closing, often we heard the word “almonds” commonly referred in the local vernacular as “amonds” [ˈa-mənds], absent of the pronunciation of the letter “L”. The harvesting process utilizes a machine that grabs the trunk of the tree and some say it shakes the “L” out of the almonds, hence the local slang.