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.