- Every February, white petals blanket first the almond trees, then the floor of the central valley, an 18,000-square-mile expanse of California that begins at the stretch of highway known as the Grapevine just south of Bakersfield and reaches north to the foothills of the Cascades. The blooms represent the beginning of the valley’s growing season each year: Almond trees are first to bud, flower and fruit. At the base of the trunks sit splintered boxes — some marked with numbers, some with names, some with insignias — stacked two boxes high on a wooden pallet that fits four stacks. Inside the boxes are bees, dancing in circles and figure-eights and sometimes just waggling. With almond season comes bee season. Everyone in the valley knows when it’s bee season. There are bee-specific truckers; motels occupied by seasonal workers; annual dinners to welcome the out-of-towners; weathered pickups with license plates from Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Florida parked in front of orchards at all hours of the night. And those ubiquitous boxes.
- This year the beekeepers responsible for those bees gathered on a mid-February Saturday for a potluck lunch at a community center in Kerman, a small town of ranch houses wreathed by acres upon acres of almond orchards. The meeting was supposed to kick off the pollinating season, but the beekeepers, many of them wearing tucked-in plaid shirts and trucker caps with dirt-curled bills, had already been at work for a couple of weeks, summoned to the state early by a heat wave. The sun beckoned the blossoms, and the blossoms begged for the bees. Farmers have a window of just a few weeks when pollination has to happen, otherwise the nuts won’t set, which is what it’s called when blossoms are pollinated and kernels emerge. When the nuts don’t set, much of a crop can be lost. By the time of the potluck, it seemed as if the season were already at its midpoint.
The beekeepers lined up to fill their paper plates with pork chops, baked beans, chicken, rice, salad and three different kinds of cake. Teri Solomon, the organizer of the event and a longtime local beekeeper, collected $10 each for lunch. A list of speakers was taped to the table where she sat — respected beekeepers, bee brokers, scientists, a Fresno County sheriff’s police detective and a rep from the Almond Board of California. Topics of the day included the steady growth of the almond industry, the science of pollination, agricultural theft (hence the cop) and the ever-more-imperiled state of honeybees. That last item carried the most weight with the crowd, as they were all struggling to maintain the vast numbers of bees needed for almond pollination. Bees are central to an enormous agricultural industry — about one of every three mouthfuls of food we eat wouldn’t exist without bee pollination — and beekeepers’ custodianship of billions of these delicate animals is as much an art as it is a science. Beekeepers themselves, Solomon confided, are funny creatures: solitary in the field, trying to anticipate the needs of a finicky insect and, unlike that insect, social only once in a while. “We’re an odd bunch, very individualistic in nature,” she said. “But we’re in trouble.”
Mostly the beekeepers and bee brokers — the agents who negotiate contracts between beekeepers and farmers — were trying to get a sense from one another of how badly bee populations had been hit, how much each was charging per hive and how much they could increase that price for the next season. There was talk of disease, pesticides, drought, floods, suburban sprawl, parasites. They talked shop: Which menthol strips are you using to inoculate your bees? How often do you change the treatment-laced pad placed in the hive to keep your bees healthy? Are the wafers or quick strips more effective for mites? Where do you apply them in the box, and for how long? Does the medication affect the performance of the bees? Can you get rid of a mite infestation, or are preventive measures the only option?
- (For the balance of this very interesting article please visit: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/15/magazine/the-super-bowl-of-beekeeping.html/)