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Almond growers monitor beehive strength

Issue Date: February 24, 2021
By Christine Souza
Almond farm manager Nick Gatzman of Travaille & Phippen in Ripon checks for even distribution of almond blossoms in a nonpareil orchard during bloom. He said growers need at least an eight-frame-per-colony average of strong honeybees for pollination to set the almond crop.
Photo/Christine Souza

Most California almond orchards are now covered in snowy, white blossoms as honeybee colonies work to pollinate the state's 1.26 million bearing acres.

In some cases, farmers who rent honeybee colonies to pollinate the almond crop say they use newly available infrared technology to grade the strength of the bees inside the hives.

Nick Gatzman, farm manager of Ripon-based Travaille & Phippen, said the farm works with great beekeepers who provide good-quality bees, but it's important to know the strength of those bees.

"Pollination is a large part of our budget every year, between 15% to 20% of our input costs, so we want to know that our hive strengths are what we want them to be," Gatzman said.

He said he has worked with The Bee Corp, an ag-tech startup that specializes in digital hive grading through infrared image analysis. He said the company approached the farm a few years ago to test the bee-inspection technology.

"After all of The Bee Corp's inspections, the beehives from our beekeepers averaged over eight frames per hive, which is what we want," Gatzman said.

Ellie Symes, chief executive officer of The Bee Corp, said almond growers face some of the most difficult challenges with pollination.

"They pay the highest pollination fees, hovering around $200 per hive, and almonds are pollinated in February when hives are at their weakest," Symes said during a session on optimizing almond pollination as part of the virtual World Ag Expo.

She advised attendees how to "optimize every dollar," on what to include in a pollination contract and how to lower pollination costs.

The California almond crop requires 94% of the country's 2.7 million bee colonies, she said, which typically leads to a shortage of strong bee colonies.

"Creating a pollination contract is the first step toward setting yourself up for a successful season," Symes said. "It's a great exercise to communicate expectations, underline important deadlines and protect both parties from liability."

Farmers can insert items and incentives into contracts to "boost your chances of getting the best bees and producing your best deal," Symes said.

She suggested pollination contracts include specifics on average colony strength, or the number of frames of bees per hive, adding that most inspectors recommend an eight-frame average for almond pollination.

Measurements of hive strength can be done by third-party inspection services or done visually by the farmer and beekeeper, and consist of an estimate of the number of frames covered by bees.

"You can establish incentives for strong hives, to keep a good beekeeper coming back each year," she said.

Farmers can work with beekeepers to inspect hives, but she said the almond grower should randomly choose which hives are inspected. A third-party inspection would provide an unbiased assessment of the bees, especially if grading bees will affect pricing.

"If you use results from grading to influence pricing, which you should, you need to define rules around how hives are graded," Symes said, adding that in most cases, the farmer will coordinate hive grading and cover the costs.

If the hive-strength assessment shows weak hives, farmers can contact the beekeeper and ask for stronger hives, she said, noting that most beekeepers will respond quickly and address the issue.

Farmers who include pricing incentives in the pollination contract can become better aligned with beekeepers on goals, she said, adding, "If your beekeeper has a bad season, your yield may suffer, but you save on pollination. If your beekeeper has a great year, you spend a little extra, but will recoup the costs with a strong yield."

A simple way to encourage a beekeeper to supply the best bees is to pay a flat-rate bonus for hives above a certain frame strength, she said, and another method is creating a tiered bonus that pays the most for the strongest hives.

Symes said another essential component in a pollination contract is a list of duties for the farmer and beekeeper. Duties for farmers include: limiting crop-protection material exposure, assuming liability for physical damage to bees and equipment, and providing maps and other relevant information. Duties for beekeepers include timely delivery and pickup of bees.

Separate from the presentation, California State Beekeepers Association President Buzz Landon described use of infrared technology to gauge hive strength as fairly new. Beekeepers who used infrared a few years ago to test hive strength in cold storage, he said, found it isn't always accurate.

"It might be a good tool for a grower to see if they are on the right track (with their bees) and if there are recorded problems, then somebody needs to go and physically verify what they have," Landon, a beekeeper from Richvale, said. "Obviously, we want to provide growers with what we're saying we're providing."

Stanislaus County almond grower Scott Hunter said he's been checking frame counts for 15 years.

"It's one of your biggest single expenses, so I put the bee suit on and get in there and we go through (the bees) before we pay," Hunter said, adding his beekeeper quickly replaces any weak hives found.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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