Every February, the almond bloom pulls about 88% of the country’s honey bee colonies to California for one huge pollination event.1 The pollination migration presents an opportunity to positively impact the health of the majority of the nation’s bees with practices that can also benefit the nation’s almond growers. The cost of colony rentals for pollination has steadily gone up year over year, alongside the increased cost incurred by the beekeeper to provide enough food for the bees and maintain healthy colonies.
Growers are now spending about $400 dollars an acre on pollination, which represents roughly ~13% of the cash cost per acre of an established orchard in the Northern part of the San Joaquin Valley, and about ~9% of the cash cost per acre of an established orchard in the South Joaquin Valley.4,5 As more almond acres go into production, the demand for honey bees is growing. Beekeepers have been able to meet the demand so far, but there are not a lot of extra colonies. This is especially true if a natural disaster or bee health issue impacts the number of available colonies.
Strategically timed cover cropping with blooming cover crops can provide a valuable source of nutrition for visiting honey bees, while also conveying soil benefits to the almond grower. Changes in pesticide application practices can also benefit beekeepers and bees. Information gained from two recent surveys could help increase the adoption of these efforts by helping growers target practices for which beekeepers are willing to provide a discount on pollination fees.
In 2020 Project Apis m. (PAm) awarded National Honey Board funds to Dr. Brittany Goodrich of UC Davis, for her project titled: “Measuring Beekeepers’ Economic Value of Cover Crops and Contract Enhancements in Almond Pollination Agreements.” Dr. Goodrich surveyed over 90 commercial beekeepers, representing about 20% of all honey bees contracted for almond pollination, to determine their preferences and the value they place on various practices, like cover crops in the almonds.2 Her findings revealed some clear preferences:
“Our results demonstrate that beekeepers place the highest value on additional pesticide protection. Secondly, we find that beekeepers value two types of cover crops, brassica and soil builder mixes, but do not value legume mixes, likely due to the timing of bloom. Our work shows there is potential for development of pollination contracts that could improve honey bee colony health, though future work must compare the costs of implementation of these practices.”
Goodrich found that beekeepers were willing to reduce pollination fees in exchange for some of these practices that the grower can adopt: about an eight-dollar-per-hive cost reduction for pest protection, and five to seven dollars for cover crops.2
Another survey, funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), was conducted in 2020 by Dr. Jennie Durant of UC Davis and Dr. Lauren Ponisio of the University of Oregon. The researchers gathered insights from 329 almond growers in the Central Valley about cover cropping practices and found that only 35% of growers have used cover crops in the last five years.3 This indicates that there is plenty of room to expand the practice if it makes sense for growers to invest in it.
The region where the growers were located within the Central Valley had an impact on cover cropping practices, likely due to local differences in rainfall and water costs. Growers who were concerned about the future availability of bees were more likely to use cover crops, and a desire for stronger colonies was another driving factor. Durant and Ponisio summed up the findings this way,
“We found that region and concerns about future pollination services were consistently important factors in determining the adoption.”
Of the study, Durant and Ponisio state,“These findings suggest that a regionally flexible pollinator conservation strategy focused on supporting honey bee colonies might have the highest likelihood of grower participation and adoption.” Other considerations also moved the needle for growers considering cover crops: access to planting equipment, cost share programs, and reduced pollination rental fees. Durant presented her team's work in depth for Project Apis m. in a webinar that is now available online.
Organizations working to cover more ground, like Project Apis m. can take the data-backed barriers, incentives, and beekeeper preferences from both surveys and provide the information in a way that helps growers and beekeepers broker new and more nuanced contracts. For example, communicating to growers clearly about the benefits these practices have for pollinators, and how much beekeepers value them, is important because that information directly addresses grower’s concerns about the supply of bees.
This research is an excellent example of PAm at work for beekeepers; funding practical research that can make a direct impact on bee health and beekeeping businesses as it produces actionable data and informs our forage programs. PAm is also funding, analyzing, and improving our forage programs that provide immediate and important nutritional sources for bees.
Article by: Grace Kunkel, Communications Manager, Project Apis m.
1) Brittney K. Goodrich and Jennie L. Durant. (2020) Going Nuts for More Bees: Factors Influencing California Almond Pollination Fees. From the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics, University of California. https://s.giannini.ucop.edu/uploads/giannini_public/83/cc/83cccc0b-b436-4744-8c6a-2d08d69f4513/v24n1_2.pdf
2) Fenton Marieke , Goodrich, Brittney, Penn, Jerrod. (2021) Measuring Beekeeper’s Economic Value of Cover Crops and Contract Enhancements in Almond Pollination Agreements. Selected Paper prepared for presentation at the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association’s 2021 AAEA & WAEA Joint Annual Meeting, Austin, TX, August 1-3, 2021.
3) Jennie L. Durant and Lauren C. Ponisio. (2021) A Regional, Honey Bee-Centered Approach Is Needed to Incentivize Grower Adoption of Bee-Friendly Practices in the Almond Industry. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 06 August 2021.
4)Roger A. Duncan, Phoebe E. Gordon, Brent A. Holtz, and Donald Stewart. (2019) Sample Costs to Establish an Orchard and Produce Almonds. San Joaquin Valley, North. University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension Agricultural Issues Center, UC Davis Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics.
5) David R. Haviland, Elizabeth J. Fichtner, Blake L. Sanden, Mae Culumber, Fresno County Mario Viveros, and Donald Stewart. (2019) Sample Costs to Establish an Orchard and Produce Almonds. San Joaquin Valley, South. University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension Agricultural Issues Center, UC Davis Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics.