During California's prolonged, wet winter, beekeeper Gene Brandi said he had to spend twice as much money on a sugary syrup to feed his honeybees and keep them alive.
That's because the bees sent to pollinate blooming almond orchards took longer than usual to emerge from their hives due to chilly temperatures, wind and rain. Since the bees weren't out gathering nectar and pollen for nourishment, the 71-year-old beekeeper provided sustenance for them.
“We probably fed twice as much than we’ve fed in a normal year,” said Brandi, of the Central Valley community of Los Banos. “It’s expensive to feed, but it’s more expensive if the hive dies.”
The challenge is one of many faced by America's beekeepers following the unusually wet winter that ravaged California's farm country, which feeds much of the nation. Most commercial beekeepers send their bees to California early in the year to help pollinate its $5 billion-a-year almond crop, then move them elsewhere to pollinate commodities ranging from avocados to cherries or to the Midwest to produce honey.
The state was battered this winter by at least a dozen atmospheric rivers — long plumes of moisture from the Pacific Ocean — as well as powerful storms fueled by arctic air that produced blizzard conditions in mountainous areas. The wintry weather flooded homes, triggered power outages and brought much-needed rain to drought-parched agriculture, though in some cases, more water than the crops could withstand.
It also took a toll on bees, who were slow to emerge from their hives during the cold front and weeks of showers.
Almond growers say it's too soon to know if the delay in the bees' emergence will hurt the state's nut crop, which accounts for about 80% of the world's almonds, according to the Almond Board of California. With a slight reduction in almond acreage following three years of drought and the intense winter, it’s possible there will be fewer nuts this year than last, which was a boom year for the crop, said Rick Kushman, a spokesperson for the state Almond Board.
Almond trees depend on bees for cross-pollination, and bees in turn feed on almond pollen, which helps sustain the hives throughout the bloom. While many people keep bees as a hobby, commercial beekeepers may have hundreds of hives and relocate their bees to pollinate various crops in distinct seasons.
Bryan Ashurst, who sends his bees north from California's Imperial Valley to pollinate almond trees, said some hives were washed away by flooding. He said he sent six workers to try to feed his bees during the cold snap since they weren't out flying — something he hasn't done in at least two decades and that cost at least $45,000.
“In bees, margins are thin, so we are putting out huge amounts of money,” he said.
Dan Winter, president of the American Beekeeping Federation, trucked his bees from Florida in late January to pollinate California’s almond orchards, which took longer than usual due to the weather. That delayed their return, so he said he now must hurry to get the hives ready to head to New York for apple tree pollination in less than a month.
“We’ve got to kick it in gear and work a little faster, a little harder,” Winter said. “It just costs a little bit.”
There may be a sweet spot for California beekeepers as the rain is expected to bring a burst of spring wildflowers, which could provide ample forage for bees and potentially translate into a good year for honey.
Brandi said he'll take his hives to coastal areas this spring so the bees can forage on a native plant to make sage honey, a premium product that he can only make every few years when there's ample rain.
“It is the finest honey we can make,” he said, adding that the last sage honey he has in his shop dates to 2019.
After that, Brandi, who sells honey to Bay Area buyers and a Midwest honey packer who supplies Costco, said his bees will head onward to feed on other plants and make more honey yet.
“We’ve been praying for rain for the last three dry years, and we finally have it,” he said. “It should be a wonderful spring once it warms up for the bees.”