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How will changes in almond pollination effect tree fruit?

Written by Brandon Hopkins, WSU, 3/7/2024

man in a beekeeper suit standing in front of hives

Tree fruit growers in the pacific northwest benefit from the significant boost in colony numbers provided by the pollination of almonds in California. The demand for an estimated 2.6 million colonies for the pollination of California almonds in February provides a major stimulus for colony growth and the ability for beekeepers to make new colonies coming out of almonds on their way to pollinate tree fruit in Washington. The almond industry has long served as the economic backbone for the commercial beekeeping industry. There are a few indicators that suggest that almond acreage has peaked and the demand for colonies might be falling. If so, this could trickle down and effect supply and/or rental costs of colonies for tree fruit.

Almond growers have been under significant economic pressure since the pandemic. Prices have been suppressed due to international trade issues and supply chain disruptions. As it has in many sectors, input costs have continued to climb. Pollination represents around 16% of the cultural costs ($280/acre) to produce almonds. As a large percentage of input cost, growers are looking to reduce pollination expenses. One such way growers are attempting to reduce these costs are through language in the current policy document from USDA Risk Management Agency and Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (Almond Loss Adjustment Standards Handbook 2019 and Succeeding Crop Years). The policy document states as a guideline that a producer should have at minimum of two colonies with six active frames, or its equivalent. Technically, that means one 12-frame colony per acre or one and a half 8-frame colonies per acre would satisfy this requirement. Most growers have used a standard two hives per acre at an average of eight frames of bees per colony. Based on language from the policy document growers can reframe the concept of stocking rates from “hives per acre” to “frames of bees per acre.” With this subtle change in approach, growers would see the standard two hives/acre with an eight-frame average as 16 frames of bees per acre. For crop insurance purposes they only need 12 frames of bees per acre. While a shift from two hives per acre to 1.5 hives per acre seems minor, it can represent a savings of $103/acre.

Despite increased costs, lower almond prices, and increased acreage removal, there are still an estimated 1.3 million bearing acres for 2024. At two hives an acre that would demand 2.6 million colonies for almond pollination. However, if a majority of growers make this shift and we see demand go from an average of two hives/acre to 1.5 hives/acre across the almond production system, this would cause a decrease in the demand for about 650,000 colonies. At current rental rates that equates to a loss of income for the beekeeping industry of about $133 million.

Beekeeping industry (like most agriculture) is facing their own issues with increasing input costs. With almond pollination as the major economic driver of the beekeeping industry it is not difficult to see how the potential loss of $133 million could have major downstream consequences. One potential outcome would be that beekeepers reduce efforts to make addition colonies coming out of almonds. If they had more colonies than they could rent in almonds this year, they might decide to make fewer “splits” coming out of almonds. If they are looking to size their operation to meet next year’s demand in almonds, they might choose to run fewer colonies. In this case it could reduce the number of colonies available for pollination events after almonds.

For those beekeepers who rented fewer colonies in almonds they will be looking to make up for the lost income or reduce costs. The industry will need to find ways to fill the hundred-million-dollar hole left by reduced demand from almonds. This might be that they demand higher rental prices from subsequent pollination events after almonds. They might choose to go to regions that pay higher pollination prices (Michigan or New York). They could focus more time and energy in making honey and skip some of the pollination opportunities. With trucking/transportation and Washington labor costs so high; out-of-state beekeepers might choose to try and reduce costs and not participate in Washington pollination.

The almond industry has been propping up a significant number of beekeeping operations and reduced demand will certainly cause some businesses to fail. The increased costs and difficulty in keeping colonies alive is already causing some notable failures in the industry. Washington has lost some major pollination providers recently and seen a reduction in the size of other operations. The influence of almonds on the bee industry is so large that even small changes can have big impacts. Keep in mind that I am not an economist or a commercial beekeeper. This is meant to raise awareness and to encourage increased collaboration, communication, and relationship building with your pollination providers.

pickup truck in an almond orchard beekeeper holding a frame four beekeepers working with bees near a canal


Brandon Hopkins
Washington State University
Dept of Entomology


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