Almond pollination in the USA
2.5 Million bee colonies on a trip to California

The U.S commercial beekeeping industry is unique, as pollination is a more significant source of income for commercial operations than honey sales. This is due to the lucrative price of almonds.

The pollination season commences in February, but much preparation must be undertaken before then. Utilizing over 85% of commercial honey bee colonies in the U.S, approximately 2.5 million hives are required in California's Central Valley. The scale and timing of almond pollination necessitates a huge effort from beekeepers to awaken colonies from winter dormancy and replenish bee stocks to fulfil contractual obligations. Almond acreage has experienced a rapid surge in the past decade, reaching over 1,600,000 acres as of 2022. Consequently, pollination service fees for almonds have increased. This in turn has resulted in beekeepers having to travel greater distances to meet the escalating demand from California almond growers. Almonds rank as the seventh most valuable crop in the United States, with an estimated value of approximately $5.6 billion, constituting over 80% of payments for pollination services. In 2022, the average price of a colony for growers was between 140 to 220 USD, depending on the strength of the colony and whether it was stocked with 8 or 10 frames. Furthermore, unlike most crops that require one strong colony per acre for adequate pollination, almond trees necessitate two colonies per acre.

Around 63% of the colonies relocated to California by January originate from the Northern Great Plains, encompassing Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Additionally, the West and Pacific Northwest regions contribute 11% and 10% of colonies, respectively, while the Northeast provides 6%.

Beehives are arranged on pallets in configurations of either 4 or 6 for ease of loading and transportation. Forklifts stack these pallets onto semi-trailers, each carrying approximately 500 hives for transportation to almond orchards. The almond pollination window lasts only four weeks. Due to the short time window and the high demand, immense quantities of honey bee colonies are required. If all the semi-trucks were lined up with around 500 bee colonies per truck, the result would be a traffic column up to 80 km long. Upon arrival in the Central Valley, the hives are distributed to orchards at a rate of two hives per acre. Offloading occurs during the evening to minimize bee activity. Subsequently, crews verify the colonies' condition, providing necessary feed.

Following almond pollination, beekeepers may relocate their colonies for additional pollination services, such as apples, blueberries, cherries, melons, etc., contingent upon the colony's strength after almond pollination.

Post-crop pollination season, colonies are transported to areas rich in forage for honey production and colony replenishment. The Northern Great Plains, encompassing Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota, serves as a major destination for honey bee colonies during the summer. This region boasts abundant forage, including large areas of CRP-enrolled (conservation reserve program) grasslands and farm acreage. Nearly half of the honey produced in the United States is attributed to foraging colonies in the Northern Great Plains.

As temperatures decline and resources dwindle, hives that have spent the summer in colder regions, such as the Northern Great Plains, are relocated to warmer Southern United States locations, including California, for overwintering. Alternatively, hives remaining in colder states are often housed in large storage sheds in preparation for the upcoming season, when the cycle begins again.

Vatorex AG, Grant Morgan 29 February, 2024
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