honeybee apis mellifera
Honeybee (Apis Mellifera) (Photo by Daniel Prudek / Shutterstock.com)

By Audrey Hill, Feature Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

Audrey Hill
Audrey Hill, Feature Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

As many of us know, almonds are a major source of income for the Central Valley, and imperatively the Central Valley is one of the largest sources of almonds for the world. California alone produces around 80% of the world’s almonds, and the majority of those are produced here in the Central Valley. Like many other agriculture products, almonds require bees – or pollinators in general – to pollinate their crop each year. And given the sheer number of almonds the valley produces, the same amount of blooms will have been pollinated by a bee the year before. Because of this, California brings in about 2 million bee colonies each year for almond pollination in February. A NASS statistical summary on honey bees from 2017 suggests that the nation has about 1.9 million hives in residence, and many say that the California almond pollination event brings in almost every hive in the nation.

Since a bee extinction scare that started around 2006, there has been a rise in the attention for bee health and care. Notably, the tremendous market for pollination in the area helped the rise in beekeeping. However, both contributed to the diversity of beekeeping operations in California and across the U.S. as many beekeepers travel cross country.

The Fachin family tending hives in East Bakersfield, April 2020 during the Orange Honey Flow. From left to right: Dominic Fachin, Kylee Fachin, Ryan Fachin, Melissa Fachin, Chloe Fachin, Lacey Fachin (Ryan Fachin)

Beekeeping is a livestock management that requires a lot of movement cross country, specifically at night when the bees are asleep and sometimes across water to usually Hawaii. Beekeeping is also highly dependent on time, says Ryan Fachin, co-owner with his wife Melissa Fachin of Fachin Bees Honey, “If you end up seeing a problem, it’s because you didn’t fix an issue from two months ago.”

Prevention is an important aspect of all livestock managing operations. However, for bee management, effects can be drastic. If a queen stops laying eggs or her health decreases enough to diminish her “brood” numbers or leave them subject to disease and mites like the Verroa mite, the colony is a few weeks away from being only an empty box. There are ways to treat disease, but none are universal. So, the most common preventative treatment is supplementation with food, an activity that seems to be more and more necessary and universal across beekeepers of the U.S. as native flora diminishes from drought, and winter freezes are harder to escape.

Similarly, Gabriel Giesick, sales director of UBees, a larger more nationally recognized beekeeping and bee brokering company, has noticed similar struggles and has created innovative solutions. This includes a Bluetooth sensor that measures temperature and humidity in each individual hive and sends updates to an app and allows for immediate attention to any hive. UBees also advocates for farmers to join the “Bee Friendly” status by planting cover crops to feed bees through multiple bloom seasons and only spraying pesticides at night. Ubees, with a goal to decrease bee mortality, also offers help with applications for government programs designed to provide cover crop seeds to farmers.

Throughout all the interviews and discussions with business owners and my beekeeping professors, honey outputs seem to be lower and lower each year. I asked Ryan Fachin how many months out of the year he nutritionally supplements his bees. “On a year like this? Since we left oranges,” he said, referring to late spring when citrus is blooming, coming out to a whopping six months a year of supplemental feeding (from around May to around October). He also states that his “over summer honey flows diminished to practically nothing” even still as the bees struggle through having very little forage over the summer months.

There are many different beekeeping operation types and I only expect the diversity to grow as beekeeping seems to become more challenging. As we become more environmentally aware and start insourcing our agricultural products, small hives and operations will pop up more and their necessity in this area will provide a good bedrock for their business to flower. To become more bee friendly on your fields, take the time to plant and water cover-crops to sustain bees more long term, and only spray pesticides at night to make sure to not kill all bees on the blooms. Check out Project Apis M. Seeds for Bees to get supplied with cover crop seeds for next year.