Every year since 2006 when Colony Collapse Disorder was officially recognized, there has been speculation in the national media that there would not be enough honey bees to pollinate agricultural crops in the United States. Each year the ominous predictions have failed to come true. This year, though, it appears that it may really be happening – at least in the California almond groves. Migratory beekeepers have been busy moving their hives to California for the last month and the word is that, this year, there truly is a shortage of bees.
If you are not familiar with the California almond/beekeeping/honey bee connection, it truly has a fascinating history. Almonds are native to Asia, but have been grown in the Middle East for thousands of years. Brought to California from Spain in the 1700s, they were part of the early farming of Franciscan missions. By 2000, the almond groves of California’s Great Valley had grown to a half a million acres. Each acre of almonds requires two hives of honey bees for pollination; a little math will tell you that in 2000, a million hives were required. Today however, there are 800,000 acres of almond trees, producing 80% of the world’s supply. They will need 1.6 million hives of honey bees, with 1.1 million of them coming from outside of California!
Increased yearly colony losses by beekeepers, which have averaged about 30% since 2006, have made it difficult for commercial beekeepers to have as many hives available for almond pollination as they did the previous year. That they have not only managed to do it, but have so far satisfied even the increasing demand for hives, is a testament to the skill of the beekeepers and to the ability of honey bees to build up their populations every spring. Though heavy colony losses have continued to occur, the actual number of hives in the United States has remained fairly constant in recent years, due to beekeepers’ splitting, or dividing, strong hives into two, or even three, in the spring.
This year, however, may be the first in which sufficient hives are not available. For many American beekeepers, 2012 was an especially difficult year, ending in losses (not yet tabulated) which may be even greater than those of the previous few years, due largely to varroa mites and nectar shortages from drought. These setbacks will recieve their share of news coverage, but another factor in the possible shortage of hives for polination (one rarely reported in the general media), is the popularity of almonds.
The world’s growing appetite for these nutritious and tasty snacks has made the growing of almonds increasingly profitable, which is the reason for the additional 300,00 acres of California groves devoted to cultivating them during the last 13 years. But the necessity of providing an additional 600,000 hives for pollination during a period of increasing challenges from new pests and diseases has stressed both bees and the migratory beekeeping industry. It is little wonder if beekeepers cannot keep up with demand this year. If you, like me, love almonds, enjoy them now and be prepared for a price increase later in the year.