Golden State’s $5.6 billion almond crop requires world’s largest bee mobilization
BY DENNIS WYATT
Charleen Carroll and daughter Paula Juarez broker some of the sweetest deals in California.
They are among a handful of bee brokers that oversee a massive migration of bees to the Golden State each year from dozens of other states to help pollinate almost 1.4 million acres of almonds.
The mother-daughter Manteca-based business dubbed Pollination Contracting Inc. matches beekeepers with almond growers each year as far south of Fresno. Once the bees are placed within their clients’ orchards, they make the circuit checking hives to make sure there are adequate bees, that they are healthy, and doing what they are supposed to be doing — pollinating California’s almond crop that last year topped $5.6 billion.
The almond pollination effort — the largest in the world in terms of mobilizing bee hives — not only starts the nation’s crop pollination season but it also requires half of the commercial beehives in the United States to make it happen.
While hives have been in place for weeks in some locations, this week is likely to be the busiest as the mercury is expected to reach the high 70s without a drop of rain. That’s perfect weather for the bees to do their thing and for delicate almond blossoms to stay intact.
And there are a lot of bees doing their thing. Carroll and Juarez place two hives per acre. A typical commercial hive has 60,000 bees. Given there are 87,300 acres of almonds in San Joaquin County there are some 10.4 billion bees busy at work in the orchards around Manteca, Ripon, Escalon, Tracy, and Lathrop. Statewide there are almost 1.4 million acres of almonds that constitute California third largest farm product behind milk at $6.4 billion and grapes at $6.2 million. California — by far the nation’s largest farm state producing crops valued at $49.8 billion or as much as the next two states combined (Iowa $27.4 billion and Texas $21.9 billion).
To give you an idea of what 1.4 million acres of almonds would look like, if all of the California orchards were in one place they’d cover all of San Joaquin County and four-fifths of Sacramento County. As for the 87,300 acres in San Joaquin County they’d come up 2,700 acres short of blanketing the City of San Francisco three times over. San Joaquin County’s almond meat production was valued at $536.3 million in 2018 with hulls and shells accounting for another $20 million in production.
Recently, the mother-daughter team was in an orchard north of Manteca and south of Delicato Vineyards off Frontage Road with beekeeper Max Rogers who trucked his bees into California from Arkansas.
The trio donned the prerequisite white beekeeper suits, careful to make sure they leave nothing exposed.
“They can still sting you throw the suits and your pants,” Carroll noted.
Bee stings are a part of doing business.
“It’s as common as drinking coffee,” Rogers said with a slight laugh.
The color white is used for beekeeping suits for a reason. Darker color, especially black, agitates the bees. White tends to be a more soothing color.
The trio approaches a series of five pallets, each sporting eight hives apiece. The hives are typically placed on the southern side of orchards that are being pollinated.
Rogers carries a bee smoker with him.
He goes to a pallet with four double-box bee hives and takes out a pry tool to get off the lid. You can try all you want to remove the lid by hand but the bees have secured it with beeswax to protect the hive.
Once the lid is off you can see why he wants to calm the bees down. There are some 80,000 bees per hive.
Puffs of smoke are used to calm the bees down rolls across the frames already partially covered with honey combs, countless bees and eggs.
Rogers pulls out one of the eight frames for inspection. The honey combs are far from being ready to harvest the honey that he sells wholesale. Almond pollination is feeding time for the bees.
He gently turns the frame over and spots what he is looking for — the queen.
While the worker bees that nature has selected to serve as foragers are busy buzzing around the orchards gathering nectar while other bees are doing specific tasks in the hive such as caring for the brood, the queen produces well over 2,000 eggs a day to make sure there is adequate bees to tackle the greatest mobilized pollination effort in the world that takes place every February and March in California’s almond orchards.
Rogers makes a couple more spot checks of other frames, pleased at what he sees.
The hive is healthy and active. That’s good news. The more the bees cross pollinate the white and pink blooms the better the odds are for bigger yields.
After they finish in the Manteca orchard, the mother daughter team along with “chauffeur” — Mike Carroll who is Charleen’s husband as well as Paula’s father and a retired correctional officer — are heading down Highway 99 to Chowchilla to make spot inspections on hives another keeper they have brokered with to make sure they are producing. If they aren’t it will cost the growers significantly when harvest rolls around.
There are perhaps three weeks left in the almonds for Rogers’ bees before he relocates them to other orchards. He’s heading cross country to New York to help pollinate apple orchards. Others are sticking nearby to pollinate cherry orchards 12 miles northwest of Manteca in the Linden area.
For Carroll and Juarez, their season ends next month as they have stuck to working with almond growers.
When Rogers pulls his hives out of the orchards he’ll do it at night. The need isn’t for darkness but cooler temperatures. The cooler night time temperatures — 55 degrees or below — assures that when he moves the hives virtually all of the bees will have returned.
Carroll and her friend Linda Hicken started brokering bees 42 years ago while their church still owned the meeting house on Pine Street. The Church Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had assessed families a set amount of money to help build new church facility.
Given both families were watching every nickel at the time, the two decided they had to get jobs.
A beekeeper from Washington who had placed his hives in Manteca orchards showed up for a Sunday service. He happened to chat with the two and was telling them how expensive it was for him to scout out his own growers as he wasn’t pleased with brokers that were available to them.
At one point he suggested it was something they could do.
Both immediately jumped at the idea. A day later, they were pulling out of Manteca at 5 a.m. in an old bee truck and driving to Washington where they spent a week learning all about beekeeping.
They then returned home and tried to secure a loan from a bank.
The first bank turned them down. But then they stopped at Delta Bank. Delta loaned them $500 for the necessary start-up expenses.
After the first season they had enough to pay the $2,000 commitment to the building funds, cover all of their expenses, set aside money for the next season and repay the loan in full.
Both were hooked not just with the sights and smells that went along with the job but the people they got to work with.
A few years back, Hicken retired and Juarez quit her job as a fulltime substitute teacher for Manteca Unified to join her mom in the business.
Actually, she isn’t a stranger to the bee broker gig. Growing up she accompanied her mom on spot inspections of various orchards where she brokered bee keepers to place hives.
“Growers and beekeepers are great people,” Carroll said as to why she is still brokering bees after 42 years. “Plus, it’s beautiful in the orchards.”