California produces about 80% of the world’s almonds, making the March pollination season quite the buzzy affair. Each spring, bee truckers haul millions of beehives to California so their inhabitants can pollinate the state's roughly 1.3 million acres of almond trees. The hives make the trek from as far as Montana, Idaho, Texas, and Florida to meet demand for the state’s $5 billion almond industry, which ranks just behind dairy products and grapes among California’s most valued agricultural commodities.
Moving bees is a tricky operation: Hives need to be loaded up at night when they’re more dormant, and because honeybees are temperature-sensitive, they can only be driven during the day. And once drivers start driving, they can barely stop, or risk suffocating their precious cargo. Then, when pollination season is over, the same bees travel to Maine for blueberry pollination and to North Dakota for honey production.
Honey supplier Adam Novicki, who runs Cypress Park’s T & A Farms with his partner, Therese McLaughlin, says he now earns two-thirds of his income from hive rental and only one-third from producing honey. It used to be the other way around.
“Now, most beekeepers need to pollinate [to get by], whether it's almonds, blueberries, apples, but almonds are the big ticket,” Novicki says. “It's the Super Bowl. It's a $200 per hive rental fee. So if you have 1000 hives, [that’s] $200,000. That's good money.”
So good, in fact, that hive theft has become a problem. Though hive boxes have identification, their contents can be stripped and resold “like an engine,” Novicki says.
“What's really disheartening is that it's not your common criminal. It's a beekeeper, because anybody who doesn't know bees is not about to go and grab a palette of poisonous insects,” he explains. “They could get a contract, bring them to a grower who does not know they're stolen, get a $10,000 check, cash it, and then they won't even come back and pick up the bees.”
Just how does the big business of bee hauling and almond pollination add up? Read on for a breakdown of the surprising facts and figures, and hear more of Novicki’s story in his full interview with Good Food.
More: Join the hive mind as millions of bees come to California for almond pollination
Bee hauling by the numbers
- 4 million tons — the weight of all almonds eaten worldwide annually
- 50% — the amount of these almonds that come from California
- 400 — approximate number of individual almonds in a pound
- 585,000 — bearing acres of almond trees in California in 1999
- 1.3 million — bearing acres of almond trees in California in 2022
- 50% — the amount of trees in an almond orchard that are non-pareil (i.e. cannot be pollinated by themselves)
- 2 — the number of beehives needed to pollinate 1 acre of almond trees
- 500,000 — the number of beehives in California
- 2.3 – 2.6 million — the number of beehives needed to pollinate all of California's almond trees*
- 1.8 million — number of beehives that need to be brought from outside California to pollinate the state's almond trees
- 50,000 — the average number of commercial honeybees in a single colony hive
- 115 – 130 billion — the number of bees needed to pollinate all of California's almond trees*
- 90 billion — the number of bees that need to be brought from outside California to pollinate the state's almond trees
- 408 — number of beehives a typical semi can carry
- 20.4 million — approximate number of bees a driver moves on a single truck
- $200 — rental fee per beehive
- $816,000 — value of all beehives in a fully loaded semi
- $360 million — total rental value of out-of-state beehives
*Approximately 20% of the almond trees in CA are self-fertile (which means they still need hives but they usually only need 1 hive per acre instead of 2)