- Joe Traynor
October 2013 American Bee Journal

Now that the dust has settled on The Great Bee Shortage of 2013, beekeepers are wondering what’s ahead in almond pollination. A major benefit of the 2013 almond season was that it made growers aware of beekeeper problems – that in today’s world it’s not easy to come up with quality colonies in the middle of winter (early February) when almonds bloom. Grower awareness + rising beekeeping costs have allowed most beekeepers to make a significant price increase for 2014 almond bees. With current prices for almonds near or over a profitable $2/lb, there has been little resistance to these increases. A question remains: where do we go from here?

There are currently 810,000 bearing acres of almonds in California. With thousands more acres planted in 2012 and 2013 some are predicting that we will hit a million acres within a few years. With 2014 bee rental fees at record highs (approaching $200/colony) many beekeepers plan to increase colony numbers to cash in on an expected shortage of bees down the road. This scenario – continued bee shortages and robust pollination fees in the future – is dependent on almonds reaching the million acre milestone. Before making long-range almond plans, it would be prudent for beekeepers to be aware that the current train ride towards a million acres of almonds could be derailed.

There are around 160,000 acres of almonds on California’s west side. This acreage is dependent on government water held in reservoirs in Northern and Central California. This water, in turn, depends on winter rainfall and spring runoff from melting Sierra snow. Water is allocated to west side growers every spring, based on conditions at that time. Because winter precipitation in 2012-2013 was well below normal, west side farmers got only 20% of their normal allotment this year. With another dry winter, the 2014 allotment could drop to zero. West side farmers have called the current situation a Regulatory Drought since billions of gallons of Northern California water that could go to farms, are instead flushed out to the Pacific Ocean in order to protect fisheries (esp. salmon runs and the Delta smelt). Currently, environmentalists have the upper hand in determining water allocations – how much water goes to the ocean and how much to farms. West side almond growers that also farm row crops can weather this Regulatory Drought by fallowing their row crop ground and using their entire water allotment for their almond trees. There are, however, growers that farm thousands of acres of west side almonds but have no row crop ground to fallow. These growers must purchase water on the open market at costs up to $1200/acre foot – an acre foot of water is one acre covered with water to a depth of one foot (= 327,000 gallons); an acre of almonds requires close to 4 acre feet of water per year to sustain profitable yields. Almond farming with $1200/acre foot water is not sustainable.

The phrase water is the new oil is being heard more frequently. This is certainly the case in California where some growers have concluded that selling their water allocations (or their ground water) is more profitable than farming. Increased demand for water from urban areas in Southern California also puts increased pressure on a limited supply (many cities would consider $1200/acre foot water to be a bargain!). In addition, massive shale oil deposits in California have attracted intense interest from oil companies; some of these shale deposits are already being fracked, using significant amounts of water in the process (oil companies can easily outbid farmers for precious water). If California regulations permit additional fracking, California’s already threatened water supply will undergo further stress, creating a new catch-phrase: water flows where oil goes(or,water goes where oil flows – take your pick).

An alternate scenario to the projected million acres of almonds is that almond acreage will level off at current figures. There was a planting boom of almonds in the 1990s and these trees are approaching their life span of 20+ years – almond yields decline after 15 years, and some aging orchards continue to be farmed only because of current robust almond prices. Should almond prices take a dip, look for almond acreage to take a corresponding dip. There is significant almond acreage in the Sacramento Valley of California, and some growers in this area are already replacing their older orchards with walnuts. Walnut farming is currently more profitable than almond farming and more attractive to Sacramento Valley growers. Rainfall during February almond bloom in the Sacramento Valley is twice that of Kern County and temp-eratures are 1 to 2 degrees colder both of which impair pollination during the critical bloom period with the colder nights increasing post-bloom frost hazard. Add the fact that there are no bee rental costs for walnuts and that the economic life of a walnut orchard is over 40 years and you can understand why we will see more almond orchards in Northern California being converted to walnut orchards. (You won’t see many walnuts planted in Kern County because warm summer nights there cause kernel browning, lowering the selling price; if new, resistant varieties are developed, this obstacle may be overcome).

Projected bee shortages (and concurrent higher almond pollination fees) in future years use the figure of 2 colonies per acre as the standard stocking rate for almond orchards. This ignores the fact that some growers get excellent crops with 1.5 colonies/acre or less using 8+ frame colonies. The 2011 pollination season offers further proof that growers can reduce colony numbers without risking lower yields. 2011 pollination weather was the poorest in the past 10 years, yet state-wide yields on 700,000+ acres set a record with 2600 lbs/acre. Surely, many of the colonies on almonds that year were below 8-frame strength, yet we still had a record almond crop (in essence, 2011 provided a 700,000 acre test plot on bee stocking rates for almonds). Higher pollination fees are causing almond growers to spend more time scrutinizing the product they are getting, and realizing they can cut back on colonies per acre by using top-strength colonies. If every almond grower in California cut back by ½ colony/acre, there would be no bee shortage in future years. If this happens, beekeepers might look back fondly at 2014 as the year that almond pollination price peaked.

Fear and greed compete for dominance in any business. Here’s a scary scenario for almond beekeepers: another dry winter will cause a significant reduction in west side almond acreage; a dip in almond prices will cause marginal orchards to be pulled, and a reduction in per acre colony numbers used for almonds will add to the supply side of the supply:demand equation. Under such a scenario, beekeepers might take part in a brutal game of musical chairs (as they occasionally have in past years) putting almond growers back in the driver’s seat as beekeepers whittle pollination fees in order to hold on to customers (unsolicited advice: sign up your current customers to 5-year agreements; with current publicity on bee problems, almond growers should be receptive to long-term commitments but might not be a few years from now). Under the above scenario, some beekeepers will be driven out of business as they will have little or no almond pollination income. Total numbers of bee colonies will drop as a result followed, after a suitable interval, by a rebound in pollination prices but not without considerable damage to both beekeepers and almond growers in the interim.

Whichever scenario you pick, a million acres of almonds with continued rising pollination fees or a leveling off of almond acreage coupled with increased bee numbers depends on whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist. Optimists are more fun to be around, but if we have another dry winter, watch out. Pessimists are rarely disappointed because things usually turn out much better than they expected.