Becoming a Commercial Beekeeper

For anybody who has followed our journey or been curious about where we’re headed. Justin’s ultimate goal is to become a commercial beekeeper. He will fulfill pollination contracts and provide pollination services for almond pollination in California and potentially other pollination contracts in and around Texas.

Each year, more almond trees are planted and this growth provides an increased demand for commercial beekeepers to bring bees to pollinate. Almonds provide excellent nutrition for bees, however, the bees can be exposed to a variety of diseases when in these monoculture orchards. If a hive is inundated, for example, with varroa mites, it is more likely that the surrounding hives can also be affected. This centralization of the North American bee population is risky for that reason.

Over the last several decades, beekeepers have had to turn to pollination in order to keep up their livelihood. While honey crops are great, pollination services can sustain a business in a much more predictable way. “California produces 82% of the globe’s almonds, harvesting about 800,000 acres of the tree nut across a 400-mile stretch from northern Tehama County to southern Kern County.” says David Pierson of the LA Times.

As someone who is focused on sustainability and nature, it’s important for me to understand the need behind the risk. Although monoculture is not likely the most sustainable or ideal way to go about farming, it is the way we are currently feeding the world. I’m interested to watch how things evolve over the next several decades as agriculture hopefully shifts to a more integrated and natural farming methods.

In reading Bee Culture magazine, Joe Traynor wrote about the perils of commercial beekeepers.

From Bee Culture magazine:

Almond Prices: Almond prices took a precipitous drop in March – from over $4/lb to the grower to below $2/lb. Prices have since rebounded to over $2 and growers can still make a profit with $2 almonds (unless they have super-expensive water). Due to increased acreage, the 2016 almond crop will be a record for California (but not a yield/acre record). Because much of our almond crop is sold to other countries, our strong dollar puts a damper on foreign sales.

2017 Almond Pollination: Increased almond acreage will increase the demand for bees somewhat but will be somewhat offset by the removal of older orchards with declining yields that were not pulled when almond prices were high. Some growers are cutting back on bees — we recommend that growers use no more than 1.5 colonies per acre. One large grower uses only ½ colony/acre on 600 acres because he likes your bees that we show him each year — he has been very happy with his almond crops. In May, we sent our growers a graph from a recent study showing that 1.5 colonies/acre of 8 to 10 frame colonies is equivalent to 2 cols./acre of 6-frame colonies (Giannini Foundation, ARE Update, March/April 2016). Insurance companies have been an impediment to getting growers to cut back on bees since some crop insurance companies insist on 2 cols/acre. We have one grower that wants to cut back to 1.5 on 1,000 acres but won’t let us know until October 1st if his insurance company will allow him to do so.

Rain During Bloom? Almonds bloom in February and historically, February in California is the wettest month of the year. Rainy weather during almond bloom can, and has depressed almond yields in past years due to a combination of less bee activity and increased bloom-time diseases. We’ve been spoiled for the past 10 years or so, including this year, by a run of relatively great weather during almond bloom. California prune growers weren’t so lucky this year. Prunes bloom in mid to late March when bloom-time rains are less likely. This year, untimely March rains had a severe impact on our prune crop. We’re overdue for a wet February – the upside being that it will increase our badly depleted water supply.

It’s one thing to read these articles in preparation, but we’re looking forward to the hands on experience that Spring will bring. As we help our commercial beekeeping friends get ready for the upcoming pollination season, split after returning from almonds, and load up for their next honey crop, we’ll have an amazing opportunity to learn about this fascinating industry.

This has been a roller coaster of an experience that went from “hobby” to “business” pretty rapidly. It’s a fun and amazing ride – I can’t wait to see where it leads!

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