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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

The California Bee Broker – Bringing Bees and Orchards Together

A month on from highlighting the disparity in supply and demand between North Island beehives and kiwifruit orchard land requiring them as pollination units, Apiarist’s Advocate editor Patrick Dawkins takes a trip to an area of the world where mass-migration of beehives takes place every spring – California, for the almond pollination season. There we meet Steve House, managing director of California Almond Pollination Service, a privately owned business which in early April had recently facilitated placement into orchards of 16,000 beehives from 18 different states around the USA.

Americans are fond of saying “everything is bigger in Texas”, but for a Kiwi visiting the United States of America, one needn’t venture as far inland as Texas to understand that everything is bigger in a country with a landmass 37 times greater than New Zealand, powering the world’s largest economy.

California Almond Pollination Service director of operations Steve House, left, and Apiarist’s Advocate editor Patrick Dawkins on a recent visit.

California alone – beginning on the Pacific Coast of America and venturing east into highly fertile cropping and pastoral farm lands, then to deserts in its south and stunningly scenic mountains in its north, provides scale enough. The ‘bigness’ of America can’t help but hit a visitor when their aeroplane lands into cities with populations of 12.5million in the greater Los Angeles area or the sprawling San Francisco Bay Area’s 9.7million inhabitants. From the skyrise buildings, serving sizes at meal times, and hefty America-made vehicles eating up the roads, it’s all ‘big’ stuff. Getting away from the masses of population, the scale of farming is striking too as mile after mile of varied orchards and cattle farms dominate The Golden State, whose landscape is paradoxically green in early spring.

California is a fruit bowl, producing half of all fruits and vegetables grown in the USA, to go with 1.72million milking cows, producing almost a fifth of the country’s milk, alongside 670,000 beef cattle. It’s 100 miles (160km) inland of San Franciso in the self-proclaimed “Cowboy Capital of the World”, Oakdale CA, where Steve House does much of his busin wrangling bees into almond orchards.

Off to the Apiary

Fittingly, House arrives into our motel parking-lot in the biggest ‘pick-up’ (read ute) I have ever seen, a Ford F350 proudly adorned with California Almond Pollination Service (CAPS) insignia and – handily for this short-legged Kiwi – retractable running-board to provide ease of access up to the passenger seat.

The 69-year-old Californian has spent almost all his working life as a beekeeper and, while he still owns 600 of his own hives, he has a team of beekeepers which carry out the hands-on work. They arrive at the apiary soon after us.

“I just stay out of their way,” House says of his team of four, who place mated queens into splits on a drizzly spring morning in early April, as we retreat to his office – the spacious cab of the Ford F350.

“When I try to help, they make it pretty clear I am not needed,” he admits with a chuckle.

Visitors Laura and Patrick Dawkins, centre, watch on as California Almond Pollination Service staff place mated queens in splits, made soon after hives were removed from orchards.

Turning on the windscreen wipers to improve our view of Ed, Miriam, Blanca and Oscar working through the 80 hives in grassy surrounds, House explains the role of CAPS.

By the Numbers

California is home to 1.38 million acres of almond orchards, which returns USD$3.52 billion to the state economy. In terms of California’s agricultural production, that is only surpassed by dairy products ($10.4bil), grapes ($5.54bil) and cattle and calves ($3.63bil). In comparison the dairy exports which power New Zealand’s nation-wide economy amount to approximately USD$15bil.

New Zealand’s honey industry, boosted by mānuka, returns us around USD$0.3bil a year from 600,000 beehives. That’s a similar return in value to the US honey industry (USD$0.37) from their 2.7million hives, but while their per-hive returns for honey might be greatly reduced, American beekeepers can call on almond growers to help put their hives to work and boost their bank accounts.

At two hives per acre (5/ha), California’s demand for beehives to cover the 1.38million acres of orchard would mean every one of the country’s beehives would be required in the state, if all the trees flowered at once. With varying growing conditions and plant varieties that is not the case, meaning – much like in New Zealand’s kiwifruit orchards – some hives can work multiple orchards. As it is though, around 2million (three quarters) of the USA’s beehives spend spring time, February and April, in California’s almond orchards.

It’s a huge logistical feat for the industry, with thousands of truckloads of up to 408 “double-deep” (double brood box) hives entering the state each year, usually on flatbed trailer units with net coverings to contain any escape-bees. CAPS alone placed 16,000 beehives in orchards in February and March, coming in from 18 states as diverse as Michigan, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Idaho in the cool-wintered Mid-West, to the warmer climates of Florida, Georgia and Texas further south.

Queens go into splits as spring rain threatens in The Golden State.

House and CAPS act as the middle men between beekeepers, predominately from out of state, to the local growers. With hives placed in orchards spread across a 300-mile area, north to south, in the fertile Central Valley this spring, it’s not hard to see why the cab of the pickup is deemed the director of the operations’ office.

Almond growers usually pay between USD$200 and $225 per hive and CAPS pay their suppliers the month after use, by April 20. As a way of comparison, California cherry growers offer USD$35-65, House explains. Therefore, beekeepers are competing for the almond contracts and CAPS recently lost one of their biggest orchards when the grower cut the price offered to USD$175 a hive.

House says he has been around the game long enough to know when it’s not worth it, and low prices and low quality is the antithesis of CAPS’s business model.

The Nuts and Bolts of It

House knows both bees and almonds well. Born and raised in California he was working on the family almond orchard when, after showing interest in his early 20s, their beekeeper said he would leave a few hives behind post-flowering.

“I was fascinated by beekeeping, but I didn’t seriously get into it as a profession until my late twenties,” the California apiarist explains.

That was the mid-1980s and it wouldn’t be long before the almond industry began to boom. A Los Angeles Investor launched CAPS in 2012, with House driving operations from the get-go, and now owning a share of the business too.

That first year they brokered just 3000 hives into orchards, but have steadily grown since. Orchards range from smaller family owned and operated style businesses, to larger corporations. Average grower size requires about 400 hives and House says he prefers dealing with the family style orchardists, but the business is ultimately about making sure both sides of the arrangement benefit, whether big or small businesses.

Inspecting an almond tree post pollination – they are not hard to find in California.

That usually begins with a “very detailed” assessment of hives soon after they come off the truck and are placed on “holding yards” ahead of pollination. Local beekeepers are contracted to undertake the unloading and loading of trucks and into orchards in California, while the CAPS staff carry out hive assessments.

Hives are graded and physically tagged into three categories; red are dead colonies, yellow tags have between one and six frames of bees, untagged units are the ideal seven to 10 frames of occupants, green tags are the strong colonies of 10-plus ‘frames’.

Not only does this grading and tagging allow the beekeeper clients (who receive a report) to be kept informed of the status of their beehives, it also plays a pivotal role in CAPS’s management.

“Red tagged hives do not receive any further attention in the way of feeding or medication until after almond pollination. Yellow tags will continue to receive feeding and medication and in addition they are placed, free of charge, in orchards where we have already placed strong hives. The growers think they are getting a deal and the weaker hives forage on almond pollen. Last year after placing 4-5 frame hives – which we deemed non-rentable – for two months in almond orchards they came back with 6-8 frames of bees. It’s win-win,” House explains.

And win-win is the aim of the game. It’s not always that simple though. Recently 800 hives arrived all the way from Pennsylvania following a cross-country trip, a distance of over 4000km, in which the beekeeper paid for transport. The condition of the colonies was so poor that only 130 made it to orchards following assessment upon arrival though.

Another successful pollination.

CAPS therefore acts as the gatekeeper, protecting the grower from receiving inferior beehives. The out-of-state beekeepers, who CAPS has sourced work for their hives, are provided the report on the condition of their colonies upon arrival. This communication is important to maintaining trusting relationships, House emphasizes.

Hives go into orchards as “double deeps” with nine frames of bees on average, usually by February 14, Valentine’s Day, as a rough and supposedly easy to recall guide. When flowering is finished by mid-March they are removed, usually with an average of 11 frames of bees. Therefore, while it might be a mono-cultural environment in the orchards, when managed well the hives can thrive.

House explains that, while almond trees produce very little nectar, hives are visited at least every two weeks and fed sugar syrup as required. The trees produce a lot of pollen which is high in all 10 amino acids essential to honey bees.

“Its like being fed something really good, prime rib, for six weeks and then moving on,” he analogises as we pull away from the apiary and back on the road in cowboy country.

Audit Accuracy

With almonds such big business in the area, the local county has taken to employing independent personal to carry out audits on selections of hives in the orchards. While they offer a service which attempts to keep beekeepers honest, House questions their experience level and accuracy of their reports.

“They hire people with absolutely no experience in beekeeping and who are deathly afraid of being stung. They get a quick course, say one to two hours, of how to incorrectly grade hives and then are sent out with another incompetent person, who is the teacher, with less than two years of incorrectly grading hives.

“They will arrive to audit hives in the middle of a warm, sunny day when twenty to thirty percent of the colony population is out foraging and not account for it,” he remonstrates.

Despite such inaccuracies, there is a real need keep checks on beekeepers, especially hive brokers, he explains.

Rain fell during this visit to almond country, but water is a scarcity in summer months and its limiting nut production is some areas.

“Brokers are seen as horse traders by some beekeepers. I’ve seen a hundred different hive brokers come and go and they have left everyone else with a black eye.”

After the Almonds

As we make our way through Oakdale and to CAPS's local base – they have five across the state – almond orchards now bereft of beehives and with green nuts forming flash by at 60mph.

“When the hives are removed from the orchard they are taken to holding yards in preparation for their next voyage. That can be back to their home state for a honey season, but is often to more pollination contracts, north to Oregon or Washington states to apple orchards, then potentially to Maine in New England for blueberries or the cranberry flowering in Wisconsin in June.

Many hives are on the point of swarming as spring winds towards summer and so they usually are not fed again before being loaded onto the truck for their next voyage, plus it helps keep their weight down.

House’s 600 Tuolumne River Honey hives move from the almonds to either orange pollination or wildflower sites of yellow star thistle, vetch, sunflowers, alfalfa and daisies, where honey is gathered. He averages 35lb (16kg) of honey per hive at wildflower sites, 50lbs (23kg) in the orange orchards.

Varroa is a constant hinderance to production, with amitraz resistance a real problem. House says a regular application of formic acid pads and oxalic acid vapour helps keep the mites at bay in their hives.

California Almond Pollination Service director of operations Steve House is a beekeeper with nearing 50 years’ experience and still runs Tuolumne River Honey in Modesto, where these hives await the bloom of wildflowers in spring.

The sudden dwindling and death of honey bee colonies which took place in America 10-15 years ago dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is still reported by some beekeepers, but House says his hives were never impacted.

“I have never seen CCD and I think it was just bad management. Once people began undertaking better hygienic management practices, such as swapping out older brood frames, it seemed to go away. Before then, I think the beekeepers got lazy,” he says.

Water, Water

Driving past Oakdale towards House’s home and beekeeping base, the California rain begins to hammer down and it guides our conversation. Water is a hot topic in The Golden State – which saw almost a decade of constant drought between 2012 and 2022 before a wet 2023 replenished aquifers – and like a lot of crops, almonds require irrigation.

In 2000 California was home to around 500,000 acres of almond orchards and the price was less than USD$1 a pound. By 2014 that price had climbed to a high of USD$4, but has dropped back to $1.50 in recent years. It has made getting payments from some growers difficult, leaving House feeling like a debt collector some days he says.

Regardless of the pricing fluctuations, 1.38million acres of almonds are now grown, but gaining access to water for them can be difficult. Along with the depressed prices for produce, the water issue is now limiting almond production.

House says he knows almond growers who have bought up neighbouring properties and not planted them out, simply to gain their water rights. Last summer he visited an orchard which had turned off the irrigation to half of their 300 acres of almond trees and left them to die, to prioritise watering the other 150 acres.

However, this spring day the only problem which water is bringing in almond, bee and cowboy country is interference with beekeeping operations. “I hope they’ve finished putting those queens into the splits,” House thinks aloud.   

A Winning Model

We take lunch and shelter from the storm in a local restaurant as House explains that, four years ago, almond growers really struggled to find any extra hives, but now beekeepers are getting more competitive for the contracts as the supply and demand equation alternates. CAPS placed almost 20,000 hives for beekeepers last season. Despite that dropping back to 16,000 in 2024, House is confident their business model is a sound one, for growers and beekeepers alike, as they have been dealing with some repeat customers on both sides of the model for over a decade now.

Like much of America, the almond industry is supersized, and California Almond Pollination Service has formed a valuable niche by setting high beekeeping and communication standards to build relationships which benefit not only grower and out-of-state beekeepers, but also provide local beekeepers with work. So, while some might see it as a form of horse trading, done right, there are winners across the board.


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