As new beekeepers, we read a lot about bees. I can’t stress enough to people considering beekeeping that you need to do your homework. The homework isn’t difficult. No calculus is involved, but it requires time and effort. As we studied, I kept coming across references to almonds and California almond orchards. I decided to investigate further, and what I found was astonishing. Thus, this blog post was created so you could be astonished too.The United States is the world’s largest producer of almonds, and California is the only state that produces commercial almonds. Spain is a very, very distant second in the world’s almond production. Over two million tons of almonds are produced annually in California. In 2017, an estimated 1.3 million acres of California land was devoted to almond orchards.
Almond trees rely exclusively on bees for pollination. With so many acres of almond orchards, it is not possible to rely on wild bees to do the pollinating. Approximately two million honey bee colonies are needed each year to pollinate the California almond trees. That total represents about 2/3 of the nation’s commercial bee hives. Each February, a great migration takes place as beekeepers load their hives on flatbed trucks and truck their bees to California.
Risks are associated with this great migration of bees. Bees can become stressed and weakened during transport. With so many hives in one place, diseases are more easily spread. Think of human beings in an airport. One sick person walking through an airport has an opportunity to infect many other people who then board planes and fly all over the world infecting others. This scenario is analogous to what happens when diseased bees are in the almond orchards. Having so many of the nation’s bees in one place also makes them susceptible to huge losses when there are issues with incorrect usage of pesticides in the orchards. Some data suggest that the fungicide used in almond orchards may be harmful to honey bees.
Why would a beekeeper want to truck their bees to California and potentially expose them to disease and stress? The answer is money. An 8-frame bee colony earns about $190 for almond pollination services. If you read my post about imported adulterated honey, you know that honey prices have been drastically depressed due to cheap imported honey that is frequently adulterated with sweeteners. (If you haven’t read that post, you should. It was one of my highest ranking posts.) US beekeepers have to find other revenue streams for their bees. The beekeepers and the almond producers need each other, but it can be a risky relationship. With so many hives needed, California almond producers are now impacted when extreme weather far away hurts bee colonies they will need for pollination in February. A hurricane on the east coast in September may impact almond pollination in California the following February. California farmers now have to worry about the weather everywhere, not just in their state.
Who is eating all of these almonds? Apparently we are. Americans are the largest consumers of almonds, and somewhere between 30 and 40% of the almonds grown in the US are consumed here. The rest are exported around the world. Americans consume nearly 2 pounds of almonds per person per year! Apparently we just love almonds but not other nuts. While US consumption of almonds has risen dramatically over the years, consumption of other nuts like pecans, pistachios, and walnuts have remained relatively flat. I attribute the rise in almond consumption to The Great British Baking Show, which has everyone wanting to bake macarons at home. In case you haven’t made macarons before, they use lots of almond flour and are considered one of the most difficult cookies to bake. (FYI – Macarons and macaroons are not the same. See below for picture of macarons.) People in the US also drink a lot of almond milk. Almond milk makes up the largest percentage of non-dairy milk consumed in the US. Almond milk beats out soy milk (my personal favorite) and coconut milk.
The fact that California is capable of producing so many almonds to feed the world is nothing short of a miracle. The miracle is made possible by about 40 billion honey bees* and lots of hard-working farmers and beekeepers. Thank a bee the next time you bite into a macaron and wash it down with a glass of almond milk.
*This is my rough calculation assuming 20,000 bees per 8 frame, single deep hive and 2 million of these hives used for pollination.
(NOTE: If you want to read lots of statistics about almond production in California, check out the 2017 California Almond Acreage Report.)