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Why California Almonds Need North Dakota Flowers (And A Few Billion Bees)

Almond trees rely on bees to pollinate during their brief bloom for a few weeks in February.
Winfried Rothermel
Almond trees rely on bees to pollinate during their brief bloom for a few weeks in February.

This is one of those stories that reminds us that everything really is connected to everything else.

Here's the web of connections: a threat to California's booming almond business; hard times for honeybees in North Dakota; and high corn prices.


OK, let's start with the almonds. They come from an old-world tree that migrated to California and prospered in the hands of farmers like James McFarlane, who lives right outside the city of Clovis.

"When I was a boy, they used to talk about how California's crop rivaled Spain's," says McFarlane. "Well, California crop left Spain's in the dust and didn't even look back."

In fact, it's one of the great success stories of California agriculture. Twenty years ago, the state produced a modest half-billion pounds of almonds each year. "We hit a billion pounds and it just never stopped. This past year it's the better part of 2 billion pounds," says McFarlane. The Central Valley of California actually grows two-thirds of all the almonds in the world.

But here's where we get into all those not-so-obvious connections. These superproductive almond trees are needy creatures. They need lots of water and fertilizer. And they also need big, vigorous insects to carry pollen from one blossom to another.

They need honeybees — billions of honeybees. And those bees have to come from somewhere else. That's why California's almond orchards have become "ground zero in commercial beekeeping," says Zac Browning, a beekeeper.

I met Browning in the middle of a huge almond orchard near the tiny town of Snelling, Calif. His beehives — 6,000 of them — were lined up as far as I could see along a dirt road down the middle of the ranch. The hives had just arrived from a storage building in Idaho where they'd spent the winter. They were carted in on a caravan of trailers with 480 white wooden boxes per load.

This was just a small part of a great national bee migration that connects California to the northern Plains. During the few weeks this month when the almond trees are in bloom, 1.6 million beehives flood the state's almond orchards, many of them trucked in from the Midwest.

"The almond bloom is one of those events that is big enough that all the bees — in fact, the majority of the bees in the country — can all be engaged and prospering," says Browning. He and his fellow beekeepers now earn as much money renting their bees to pollinate almonds as they do selling honey.

Workers unload beehives near Snelling, Calif. in preparation for the almond blossoms.
/ Dan Charles/NPR
Dan Charles/NPR
Workers unload beehives near Snelling, Calif. in preparation for the almond blossoms.

But the bees can't stay in the almond orchards. In a few weeks, they'll have to move on, "because just as quickly as it arrived, the bloom is over and we're back to desert here," says Browning. "And we have to find our sanctuaries for these bees."

To survive, and certainly to produce honey, bees need food. They need landscapes with plenty of flowers and nectar. But those simple things are surprisingly hard to find in modern America.

"We're limited to the fringes of rural America, where we can stay away from pesticides, where we can find wildflowers," says Browning.

So Browning and many other beekeepers pack up their colonies and drive to the northern Plains. In particular, they drive to North Dakota.

It's one of the few places where thousands of colonies of bees have been able to graze happily. A big reason is a government program, the Conservation Reserve Program, which has been especially popular in North Dakota. Under this program, the federal government rents land from farmers and sets it aside, taking it out of crop production to conserve the soil, save water, and support wildlife.

Flowers bloom on that land — alfalfa, clover or wildflowers — all summer long. It's just what bees need.

But that floral feast is shrinking. This is where those high corn prices come into the story. Farmers who used to put their land into the conservation reserve are having second thoughts. Corn is more profitable.

"The landscape is changing," says Ned "Chip" Euliss, who lives in Jamestown, N.D., and works for the U.S. Geological Survey. "When I first came here, 20 years ago, it was rare to see a cornfield in North Dakota. Now, they're very common."

The amount of North Dakota land in the Conservation Reserve, meanwhile, has declined by a third over the past five years. This year, it's expected to take another plunge, perhaps down to half what it was at its peak.

Beekeepers are telling Euliss that they're worried, that these changes are bad for bees. And Euliss, together with a group of other scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Minnesota, is trying to measure the impact of those changes. They're monitoring dozens of different colonies to see whether bees that now spend their summers near cornfields stay as healthy as bees that get to graze on conservation reserve land.

Bees, of course, have been having lots of disease problems in recent years. For Zac Browning, who's the fourth generation of Browning beekeepers, the shrinking sanctuaries in the Dakotas, coming on top of his other problems, feels like a kind of personal crisis.

"This is my livelihood. It's also my birthright," he says, as we drive away from the orchard. "I really believe that we need to be able to pass this business, this passion, on to the next generations. And if we don't stand up now, I don't think we'll be able to pass anything on."

If there's one small bit of hope, it's the fact that this is not just a beekeeper's problem anymore. Browning and his bees are getting a lot more attention these days, because the prosperity of almond growers also depends on what happens to bees on the lonely northern Plains.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dan Charles
Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.