Spring Break with Millions of Bees: Why Beekeepers Take a California Road Trip Every Spring
If you’ve ever driven on Interstate 5 in California during the month of February, you’ve probably witnessed the world’s largest pollination event. Just shy of a million acres in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys are planted with rows of almond trees, and when they’re all blooming, it’s quite the sight (and aroma).
The vast majority of commercial beekeepers based in the United States, including Henry Storch of Old Blue Raw Honey, move their bees to California for the almond bloom, and though they’re compensated at a significant rate per hive, it’s expensive and risky to prepare and transport the bees.
Moving Bees to California
California’s almond orchards produce over 2 billion pounds of nuts (about 85% of the total world almond crop), but the bountiful harvest would not be possible without the work of migratory bee colonies. Honeybees and other pollinators transfer pollen from tree to tree as they wriggle their pollen-dusted bodies around in the flowers, seeking out nectar and pollen. Without this insect-borne distribution of pollen, the trees would produce little or no almond crop at all.
To ensure a strong nut set, almond growers contract with beekeepers to bring hives into the orchards usually at a rate of two colonies per acre during the almond bloom, a period of four to six weeks in February and early March. Pollination contracts generally stipulate a minimum hive size (in units of frames covered by bees) to guarantee there will be enough bees in the area getting the job done.
Managing colonies to be ready for almond pollination requires year-round attention to hives. They must be stimulated in the late summer and fall by feeding pollen substitute and sugar syrup. Henry must often replace older queens in hives with younger, stronger ones so the bees overwinter in larger clusters and are ready to build up quickly when relocated to warmer climes.
How the Bees Make the Trip
Bees are transported to California from far-flung winter holding yards on open, flatbed semi trucks. The trucks are loaded three-hives-high with a forklift, covered with a special net, and strapped down tightly. Then the beekeeper sends them off and crosses his or her fingers, hoping for a smooth journey. Trucks transporting bees long distances are generally driven during the day, but it’s important that the driver never stop for too long because the airflow while driving is critical to keeping the bees from overheating.
Tragic accidents — every beekeeper’s worst nightmare — do happen occasionally, and such an event can put a small- to medium-size migratory family operation out of business.
Why Put Bees in Almond Orchards?
There are a number of benefits to placing hives in almond orchards. The income generated from almond pollination contracts is often a beekeeper’s largest single source of cash-flow for the entire year. In a good year, some of that money can be reinvested in the business by purchasing a new truck, better extraction equipment, bee boxes, or supplemental feed. In a bad year, almond growers’ checks can help to mitigate the cost of replacing “dead-out” hives or the lack of income when weather conditions make for low honey harvests later in the summer.
If the weather is good, the bees can usually bring in almond nectar and pollen to feed on during spring buildup. Beekeepers don’t usually harvest any of the limited almond honey they produce because it may be mixed with sugar syrup, and the bees are better off eating the bitter honey themselves.
For an Oregon-based beekeeper like Henry, doing almond pollination can be stressful for a lot of reasons, but the challenges are made more bearable by being part of a beekeeping community both in Oregon and in Butte County, California. Through personal connections, business connections, and Instagram, he’s met a number of other beekeepers and farmers near Chico who have offered him assistance in many ways. He also speaks Spanish fluently, which is very helpful when navigating Northern California agricultural circles.
The Almond Bloom Season: Exhilaration and Anxiety
Henry’s contracted almond orchards are about an eight-hour drive from his home and family, and right now, he’s finishing up his fourth week-long stint in California tending to his bees. When he’s there, he works 12- to 14-hour days, often moving bees in pre-dawn hours or late at night when they’re not active. The work itself is heavy, sticky, and full of venom (literally). There’s a great taco truck in Durham, CA, that provides on-the-go sustenance to the worn and weary, and Henry often eats there more than once a day. Fortunately, Henry has a place to stay near his California apiaries, a room in a fellow beekeeper’s house, instead of sleeping in a motel room or in his truck like some other migratory beekeepers must do while they’re away from home.
When he’s back home in Oregon and his bees are in California, Henry constantly carries a low-grade anxiety about the state of his colonies while trying to catch up on farrier work and spend time with his young kids. He worries that his bees aren’t doing well or that they’ve been sprayed or stolen (a real concern for beekeepers, particularly in January). It’s a big relief when the northbound truck arrives back in Oregon with all his hives intact and easily accessible for the rest of the year.
This week we’re bringing you an inside look at the story of Henry Storch, a migratory beekeeper in Oregon, as written by his wife, Camille. Stay tuned for more about migratory beekeeping coming up all this week!