Some almond trees don’t need no stinkin’ bees!

March 31, 2016

About 80% of the country's commercial bees (and their beekeepers) visit California during the months of February and March. Typically, during this time, the bees are busy buzzing around and pollinating the state’s almond trees. However, a relatively new variety of almond called Independence could change the need for bees and the beekeeper business as they're self-fertile — meaning they technically don't need bees to pollinate their flowers.

An article explains that this type of almond tree is able to breed with themselves as strong spring-time winds move their sticky pollen millimeters within each blossom to the female part of each flower, and in turn, create a single almond. (Some farmers say if you use just a few bees, you'll get an even bigger crop.) This is a boon for farmers, who spend lots of money hiring bees each spring to pollinate their crop.

"There are a lot of these old almonds that still need bees," beekeeper Brian Hiatt said in the article. But as Independence almonds become more popular, he thinks he will lose profits.

Others in the industry — including Gene Brandi with the American Beekeeping Federation — see things differently, especially since a colony collapse disorder has killed as much as 40% of the wild honeybees in the West. "I know how difficult it has been for our industry to supply the bees that are needed," Brandi said.

In addition, farmers like Josh Pitgliano are loving Independence almonds. Pitgliano has several hundred acres of the self-fertile variety — he first started planting Independence trees six years ago.

Pitgliano said he likes that with Independence almond trees, he has to use less than half the number of bees. Whereas most farmers place two hives per acre, Pitgliano scrapes by with half a hive per acre on his orchards of Independence. This translates to big savings: An average hive of bees costs around $180 to hire for the season.

Plus, the article explains that Independence almond trees comes with another perk — easy harvest.

"I come in here once and I harvest all the nuts, all at one time," Pitgliano said. In contrast, traditional almond orchards have several varieties of the tree planted in each field and are harvested multiple times.

And the nuts these trees make are just as good, farmer Ben Barra said. When he realized he didn't have to hire any bees at all with the Independence variety, he was hooked. Barra said he has farmed everything from sugar beets to eggplant to potatoes and tore out his peaches and plums after he had a really bad season, losing over $100,000.

So, he latched on to the idea of a crop that didn't require many bees and that he'd only have to harvest once. So far it seems to be working out: Barra says the Independence trees have produced more than he originally expected.

"You can't believe it," Barra said in the article. "The first year we did 6,000 [pounds], and then we did 17,000 [pounds]. Last year we did 31,000 [pounds]."

This year he hopes the acreage's yield is over 40,000 pounds, but he realizes he is taking a chance on new tree variety that hasn't stood the test of time.

"When I gambled with this," Barra added, "this was the last shot that I was making."

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Category: Agriculture