Expanding almond acreage in California benefits PNW orchardists.

by Joe Traynor

California's almond acreage has doubled over the past 20 years, standing now at 500,000 acres. These 500,000 acres of almonds require one million colonies of bees for pollination. Bees are trucked into California from all over the United States for the February pollination. (Table 1 shows bee colony totals by state.)

Many of the colonies used for almond pollination come from Montana and North Dakota. Colonies from these two states spend part of April in Pacific Northwest tree fruit orchards because it is too cold to return home until May. Prior to the increase in almond acreage, most Montana and North Dakota beekeepers either killed off their colonies in the fall, rebuilding them in the spring, or wintered their bees in Texas.

With some 180,000 acres of apples, 43,000 acres of pears, and more than 30,000 acres of pears in Washington and Oregon, about 380,000 bee colonies are required to pollinate cherry, pear, and apple orchards. A figure of 1.5 colonies per acre is used to determine the bee requirement. The actual requirement is less than this because some colonies are used twice, moving from cherry, pear, and early apple orchards to later blooming orchards in northern Washington.

The large pool of bees created by the expansion of California's almond acreage has resulted in stable or lower pollination fees for tree fruit orchardists. Pacific Northwest growers also benefit from increased hive strength as the bees used on tree fruit have a good food source from the almond bloom prior to being delivered to Pacific Northwest tree fruit orchards.

California's almond acreage has a direct impact on bee rentals in the Pacific Northwest. If apple acreage in the Northwest was twice as high as California's almond acreage (as it once was), bee rental fees would be twice as high as almond pollination fees (as they once were), and bee colony strength for apple bloom would be less.

Almond growers pay $45 to $55 per colony for bee rentals. Thirty years ago, they paid $10. This situation could change if the almond industry develops self-fruitful varieties or varieties that bloom in March. However, such developments are at least 20 years away.

Bee industry in trouble

The economic health of the U.S. bee industry is as bad or worse than that of the Pacific Northwest apple industry. Bee numbers are declining due to a combination of low honey prices and parasitic mites.

Income from almond pollination is the only thing keeping many U.S. beekeepers in business. California's almond industry is indirectly subsidizing the Pacific Northwest tree fruit industry by maintaining a large pool of bees from which apple, pear, and cherry growers can draw at relatively low pollination fees.

Joe Traynor operates a California-based pollination service for growers and beekeepers. He is also an agricultural consultant specializing in soil fertility and plant nutrition.