Bees can play a pretty significant part at farmers markets. They usually are responsible for the sweet varieties of honey lined up on a table, with exotic choices like avocado honey, lavender honey and cotton blossom. Not at our local bazaar. Rather, the black and yellow buzzing insects are helping out an unexpected crop at the Coronado farmers market.
It’s pruning season, it’s mulching season, and it’s pollinating season. Hopkins Ag, known at the market for its sweet, savory and specialty almonds, breaks out the hives every winter in order to cross-pollinate their almond and cherry trees.
“We get two to two and a half hives per acre,” said farm owner Mike Hopkins. “We farm about 2,000 acres so we bring in somewhere around 4,000 hives.”
The hives come from a pollinating service located in San Bernardino County, which retrieves the bees from North Dakota. Every February, Hopkins Ag brings in the bees and starts pollinating away. “We try to have the bees in place by the time the trees are blooming,” Hopkins said. “We start at around the 10th of February and the bees are there for a month.”
During the bees’ month-long visit, they’re kept in two-story hives that have an entrance and exit at the bottom. As the bees warm up, they fly in and out, while pollinating the different trees across the farm. “The better the weather, the more active they are,” Hopkins said. If the weather is cool or windy, the bees stay tucked away and unproductive inside their hives.
Hopkins Ag is located in the San Joaquin Valley, making it a perfect region to grow almonds and pollinate since it rarely sees a “winter.” With its warm weather in February, bees can be actively pollinating while the trees bloom. “We can grow almonds here, while other parts of the world can’t,” Hopkins said. “That’s the uniqueness of the San Joaquin Valley.”
The farm’s trees vary in type by row. Every other row is a nonpareil and each row alternates on varieties. This makes for the most productive cross-pollination from the busy bees. Without this technique, along with the important insects, we wouldn’t have heart-healthy favorites to snack on.
“We wouldn’t produce nuts [without the bees],” Hopkins said. “There would be some natural pollination, but not enough to commercially produce.”
The tiny guys with stingers are an absolute necessity for crops like almonds, cherries, stonefruits and even melons. But in recent years, the bee population has significantly dropped. According to the Congressional Research Service, the honey bee population dropped almost 36 percent in the winter of 2007/2008. The winter before, it dropped almost 32 percent, and since then, it has continued to decline. This forces farmers to bring in bees to pollinate, and also makes it one very expensive month.
“[The decline of bees] is random. It doesn’t happen to all the beekeepers at the same time—it’s not universal,” Hopkins said. “But there are problems on our end. The cost of bees has gone up. Each hive costs $125-$160.” Take that and multiply it by 4,000 and you get an expense that’s sure to make your eyes bug out.
“It’s important for people who buy our products to know that Mother Nature plays a big part [in our production],” Hopkins said. Weather, pollination and even rodents affect how Hopkins Ag’s crops turn out. “We keep an owl house in the fields to keep the rodents away,” said Darrin Hopkins, son to owner Mike Hopkins.
The farm is still a couple weeks away from hauling in the honey-making bugs. “The trees are dormant right now,” said Darrin Hopkins. “But we’ll bring in the bees and the flowers on the almond [and cherry] trees will bloom beautifully.”
Want to taste the fruit of the bees’ labor? Stop by the farmers market on Tuesdays from 2:30-6 p.m. and try the different flavored almonds. In a couple of months, around the beginning of May, expect sweet and tart cherries, like the gorgeous Ranier variety, from Hopkins Ag. And when you pop an almond or cherry into your mouth, remember all the hours both the farmers and the buzzing bees had to put in to deliver one very tasty snack.