California drought hurts Iowa beekeepers

MOUNT VERNON, Iowa (AP) — Some Iowa beekeepers are making extra money by taking their bees to California for the winter to pollinate almond trees, but that business is literally drying up because of the West Coast drought.

“Some of the old gardens are being torn down,” said Phil Ebert, 80, founder of Ebert Honey, which has operations in Mount Vernon and Lynnville. “We’ve lost our place there and I don’t know if we’ll ever find another one.”

California, which produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds, has long relied on honey bees for pollination because most almond tree species don’t self-pollinate, said Josette Lewis, chief scientist at the California Almond Council.

California beekeepers provide about one-third of the bees for almond pollination, but because almonds have grown in popularity over the past 25 years and the pollination window is only one month, California almond growers must attract beekeepers from other states.

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“A large portion comes from the western part of the United States, but honeybees come from all over the country,” Lewis told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “This has become an increasingly attractive feature for beekeepers.”

Almond growers don’t pay nearly $200 per bee colony for the season, and the bees that help pollinate almonds receive a seasonal feast of pollen and nectar than bees that overwinter in Iowa.

“The real benefit is when the bees come home, the boxes are full,” Ebert said. This means it can break up the hive to create more colonies and increase honey production.

Despite three years of drought, California’s 2022 almond crop is 11 percent lower than last year, with a projected yield of 1,900 pounds per acre, the lowest since 2009, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report released in July. is an indicator.

“Almond growers are in a difficult position where we both have limited water resources and if you buy water, you pay a higher price as well as higher input costs,” Lewis said. “All of this happened at a time when almond prices were really low, mainly because of supply chain issues.”

California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which takes effect in 2021, prohibits farmers and others from drawing more water from groundwater aquifers, NPR reports.

That law and other market forces have led some California almond growers to cut trees, Lewis said.

“We’ve seen a small increase in the number of almond orchards, probably as a result of the drought,” he said. “There are certain areas of the state that will be subject to long-term water restrictions. Going forward, this remains something we’ll be watching as we head into another tight revenue year.”

Fewer acres of almonds means less need for honey bee pollinators.

The Eberts have been transporting honeybees to California for the past four years, moving hundreds of colonies to almond orchards in November or December so the bees are ready to pollinate almonds in February and March.

If they can’t find a place in California, the Eberts may take their bees to Texas. Ebert said they won’t get paid there, but the bees will start collecting pollen in January rather than March or April in Iowa. In both states, the Eberts had to go out in January and early February to feed the bees and maintain the hives.

“I’m still trying to get them to California,” said Adam Ebert, one of Phil’s sons. “Almond pollination pays really well.”

The USDA announced this week that it will continue to survey farmers to see who uses honey bee pollinators and how much it costs.

Data from the survey, which was discontinued in 2018 due to USDA budget constraints, helps producers develop their budgets and file for crop insurance, Lewis said.

USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service has sent questionnaires to about 16,000 producers and will begin collecting data immediately, the agency said. The report, to be published in January, will include data from the 2017 and 2022 surveys, including paid pollinator acres, cost per acre, colonies used, cost per colony and total cost of pollination per crop.

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