California drought is hurting beekeepers in Iowa

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 work is literally drying up with the West Coast drought.

“Some of the old orchards are being demolished,” said Phil Ebert, 80, founder of Ebert Honey, which has offices in Mount Vernon and Lynnville. “We’ve lost our place out there and I don’t know if we can find another.”

California, which produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds, has long relied on honey bees for pollination because most almond tree cultivars aren’t self-pollinating, said Josette Lewis, chief scientist for the Almond Board of California.

California beekeepers provide about a third of the bees for almond pollination, but since almonds have grown in popularity over the past 25 years and the pollination window is only about a month, California almond farmers have had to recruit beekeepers from other states.

“A lot of it is from the western United States, but honey bees come from all over the country,” Lewis told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “This is increasingly an attractive trait for beekeepers.”

Not only are almond growers paying about $200 per bee colony for the season, bees helping with almond pollination get a feast of pollen and nectar much earlier in the season than bees wintering in Iowa.

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

But three years after a drought, California’s 2022 almond crop was estimated to be 11 percent below the previous year, with the projected yield of 1,900 pounds per acre — the lowest since 2009, according to a US Department of Agriculture report released in July.

“Almond producers are in a painful situation where we both have limited water resources and if we can get water we have to pay a higher price and higher input costs,” Lewis said. “All of this happened at a time when almond prices were very low, mainly due to supply chain issues.”

California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which went into effect in 2021, prohibits farmers and others from pumping too much water from underground aquifers, NPR reported.

That law and other market forces have prompted some California almond farmers to cut down trees, Lewis said.

“We’ve seen a small increase in the amount of almond orchards removed, probably as a result of the drought,” she said. “There are certain areas of the state that will face long-term water restrictions. Going forward, we remain something to watch as we head into another year of tight profitability.”

Fewer acres of almonds mean less need for honeybee pollinators.

The Eberts have been transporting honey bees to California for the last four years, transporting hundreds of colonies to almond groves in November or December so they are ready for almond pollination in February and March.

If they don’t get a place in California, the Eberts could take their bees to Texas. They wouldn’t get paid there, but the bees would start getting pollen in January, as opposed to March or April in Iowa, Ebert said. In both states, the Eberts would have to go out in January and early February to feed the bees and service the hives.

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

The USDA announced this week it would continue a survey of farmers to see who is using honey bee pollinators and how much it costs.

Data from the survey, which was discontinued in 2018 due to USDA budget constraints, is helping growers develop their budgets and provide documentation for crop insurance, Lewis said.

The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service has sent out questionnaires to about 16,000 growers and will begin collecting data immediately, the agency said. The report, due to be released in January, will include data from the 2017 and 2022 surveys, including paid pollinator acres, price per hectare, colonies utilized, price per colony and total value of pollination per crop.