MOUNT VERNON, Iowa (AP) — Some Iowa beekeepers make extra money by taking their bees to California for the winter to pollinate almond trees, but that work is literally drying up with the drought on the West Coast.
“Some of the old orchards are being torn out,” said Phil Ebert, 80, founder of Ebert Honey, with operations in Mount Vernon and Lynnville. “We’ve lost our spot out there and I don’t know if we’re going to be able to find another one.”
California, which produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds, has long relied on honey bees for pollination because most almond tree varieties do not self-pollinate, said Josette Lewis, chief scientific officer with the Almond Board of California.
California beekeepers provide about one-third of the bees for almond pollination, but because almonds have exploded in popularity in the past 25 years and because the pollination window is only about a month, California almond growers must recruit beekeepers from other states.
“A large portion come from the Western part of the United States, but honey bees come from all over the country,” Lewis said. “That has increasingly been an attractive feature for beekeepers.”
Not only do almond growers pay about $200 per colony of bees for the season, bees that help with almond pollination get a feast of pollen and nectar much earlier in the season than bees overwintering in Iowa.
“The real benefit is when the bees come home, the boxes are full,” Ebert said. This means he can split the hive to form more colonies and increase honey production.
But three years into a drought, California’s 2022 almond harvest was estimated to be 11 percent below last year, with the projected yield of 1,900 pounds per acre — the lowest since 2009, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report released in July.
“Almond producers are in a painful position where we have both limited water resources and, if you do get water, you’ll be paying a higher price, as well as higher input costs,” Lewis said. “All of this happened at a time when almond prices have been really low, predominantly due to supply chain problems.”
California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which went into effect in 2021, prohibits farmers and others from pumping too much water from underground aquifers, NPR reported.
This law and other market forces have caused some California almond growers to remove trees, Lewis said.
“We did see a small uptick in the amount of almond orchards removed, probably as a result of the drought,” she said. “There are certain areas of the state that will face long-term restrictions on water. Going forward that remains something we’ll keep a watch on as we go into another year of strained profitability.”
Fewer acres of almonds mean less of a need for honey bee pollinators.
The Eberts have transported honey bees to California the last four years, trucking hundreds of colonies to almond groves in November or December so they bees are ready for almond pollination in February and March.
If they can’t get a spot in California, the Eberts might take their bees to Texas. They wouldn’t get paid there, but the bees would start getting pollen in January versus March or April in Iowa, Ebert said. In either state, the Eberts would have to go out in January and early February to feed the bees and maintain the hives.
“I’m still trying to get them to California,” said Adam Ebert, one of Phil’s sons. “The almond pollination pays really well.”