One Bee for Every 20 Nuts
It's almond pollination season in the California Central Valley. If you're driving in the valley, you'll see thousands of acres of beautiful white flowers, and if you're riding a bike, you hope not to be stung by a bee.
California produces 80% of the world's almonds. As I wrote in my first Ag Data News article last May, more acres of almonds are harvested in the state than any other crop. Almonds use more land than grapes, lettuce, oranges, rice, strawberries, and tomatoes combined.
Each of the 1.2 million acres of almonds in California contains about 125 trees, and each of those trees produces about 6000 almonds. So, in total California produces about 900 billion almonds per year, more than 100 for every person in the world.
These nuts could not be produced without honey bees, In late February, about 90% of all honey bees in the United States are in California pollinating almonds. They come from all over the country. After completing their work in almond fields, many move to the Great Plains, which is the dominant honey-producing area in the United States, perhaps stopping along the way to pollinate apples in Washington.
Almond growers typically use two bee colonies per acre. Each colony contains about 20,000 bees, so there are about 48 billion bees pollinating California almonds right now. That's one bee for every 20 almonds.
California almond production has tripled since 2002 and increased ten fold since 1986. However, the number of honey bee colonies in the US changed little over the same period. Bees are needed for almond pollination only in February, so beekeepers can transport existing bees into California at that time rather than developing more colonies.
Final USDA data on 2020 are not yet in, but it appears that good weather and continued acreage growth produced a large crop. In July 2020, USDA projected a crop of 3 billion pounds, up 18% from 2019. The most recent position report from the Almond Board pegs 2020 production at 2.96 billion pounds, and it shows shipments up 16% in the first half of the current crop year (Aug 2020 - Jan 2021) relative to the same 6 month period in 2019-20. Exports are up 20% whereas domestic shipments are up 6%.
Almond prices dropped to $1.50 per pound last spring after averaging about $2.50 in 2018 and 2019. This price drop was likely driven by the big 2020 crop, but a pandemic-induced drop in demand may also have been a factor.
For more on bee pollination of almonds, check out Brittney Goodrich's work. Brittney is a cooperative extension specialist in ARE at UC Davis and will have an office down the hall from me once we go back to our offices. I recommend this article for background and this article for the 2021 outlook.