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Grading Bees for California Almond Pollination

By Blake Shook

You have most likely heard about California almond pollination. It's the single largest pollination event in the world, and financially, it's what keeps most commercial beekeeping businesses alive. Bees for pollination is also one of the greatest expenses for the almond growers. Since almonds essentially cannot produce without ample pollination, and the more they are pollinated, the more they produce, it stands to reason growers want to make sure they have sufficient bee population.

Plus, many growers pay a bonus of $5 per frame of bees over the contracted strength, and won't pay at all if bees are under the contracted strength. So, accurately measuring hive strength is very important for both growers & beekeepers.

First, let's cover what is required strength-wise. The industry norm is what's called an 8 frame average, 5 frame minimum. This means that all the bees placed in 1 orchard need to have an average strength of 8 frames covered with bees per hive, and a minimum strength per hive of 5 frames of bees. If there are hives less than 5 frames of bees, the grower does not pay for those. 

But, overall, the average strength should be 8 frames of bees. It's fine to have a few 5 frame hives, but you also need to have some 11 frame hives to balance out that average. There are some growers and contracts who will take less than an 8 frame average, especially when bees are in short supply.

Second, what is the proper way to grade bees as a beekeeper or grower? Most hives are 2 deep boxes on almonds, so we'll presume that's the configuration going forward. Many new beekeepers sending bees to almonds make the mistake of simply removing the cover and counting how many frames appear to be covered with bees. However, it's common for bees to move up towards the lid. It can appear you have a strong hive when you pop a lid, but closer inspection reveals there is

10 Frames of bees on the underside of the bottom box.

nothing more than a thin layer of bees on the top of the hive. The same can be said for cracking boxes apart and looking at the top bars of the bottom box only. The most accurate method for grading bees is to tip both boxes off the pallet or bottom board they are sitting on & look at the underside of the frames of the bottom box. Count how many frames appear to be covered with bees. Then, crack the boxes apart and count the frames of bees by looking at the top bars of the bottom box, and the underside of the top box. Since clusters of bees stay largely together in the hive, this will tell you how many frames of bees are in the hive. By looking at the bottom & top bars, & their coverage of bees, you will get a very accurate view of the cluster size and how many frames of bees are present. 

8 frames of bees from top box view. If both images were 1 hive, this would be counted as 18 frames of bees.

Most beekeepers grade every hive before placing them in orchards to ensure they are strong enough. Once they have all been put in place, the grower typically hires a county inspector or a 3rd party inspection company to inspect the hives. Occasionally, growers won't inspect at all.

Third, the inspector grades the hives, usually within 2 weeks of placement. Inspections should occur when the temperature is over 60 degrees to ensure hives are not clustered so tightly that hives appear smaller than they are.

Inspectors randomly select 10% of the hives in each orchard to grade. A complete report of which hives were graded, what the grade was, and the overall average frame count is sent to the beekeeper & grower. If the average is below the contracted strength, the beekeeper usually has a few days to bring additional hives in to bring the average frame count in that orchard to the agreed average. The beekeeper can also dispute the inspection report and order an inspection from a mutually agreed upon second inspector. This is

A great view of cluster size by looking at the underside of boxes.

fairly common since surprisingly, many inspectors are not beekeepers and don't actually know much about grading bees. If you are new to sending bees to almonds, it's an excellent idea to grade bees with someone who has done it before or have them come take a look at your bees before shipping them to CA. I've worked with many beekeepers over the years who want to send hives to almonds. 95% of the time, they overestimate the strength of their hives. I did the same thing when I first started! It's a huge waste in time and effort on everyone's part to send weak hives to California. Plus, with 408 hives to a semi truck, and paying $3-$4 per mile 1 way to ship them to CA, it's very expensive to ship bees which don't end up making grade. But, if you do send good hives, it's an excellent source of income and bees tend to grow extremely well in CA due to the near perfect nutrient makeup of almond pollen.

A very weak hive of 1 frame of bees.


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