Projects Funded for Jerrod Penn


Do Beekeepers Value Cover Crop Use in Almond Production?

Brittney Goodrich and Jerrod Penn


Specific Objectives of the Project
Cover crops have been proposed as a strategy to improve soil health in many crops, conserving water and mitigating effects of climate change (Pathak et al., 2018). In almonds, it has been suggested that bee-friendly cover crops could improve the health of honey bee colonies, adding another potential benefit to this conservation practice. Despite the numerous benefits of cover crops in almonds, less than 6% of growers use cover crop practices (Almond Board of California, 2015). Concerns regarding the economic return from cover crops are one of the top reasons for low cover crop adoption in the United States (CTIC and SARE, 2017). Because honey bee nutrition may be improved by cover crops, the use of cover crops may also provide an economic return to the beekeeper. It has been assumed that beekeepers will be willing to accept a discounted almond pollination fee if cover crops are grown in an almond orchard (DeVincentis et al., 2020). The objective of this project is to determine the size of discount beekeepers would be willing to accept for different cover crop mixes in order to facilitate wider adoption of cover crops in almonds.

Summary of Results
Using an online survey and a discrete choice experiment, we investigate and monetize the value of cover crops and other pollination contract components to commercial beekeepers who annually participate in almond pollination services. The analyzed sample of 81 commercial beekeepers represents approximately 19% of hives demanded for 2020-21 season.

We find that beekeepers value certain cover crop mixes, additional pesticide protections and up-front payment in their pollination agreements. Overwhelmingly beekeepers were willing to accept lower pollination fees for cover crop mixes that contain Brassica plants (e.g., mustards and canola) that bloom prior to and during almond bloom and were not willing to accept lower fees for a cover crop mix composed of legumes (e.g., clovers) that would not begin blooming until toward the end or after almond bloom.

Pesticide protection had the highest economic value to beekeepers: they were willing to give up $8 per colony in additional revenue to have a guarantee that almond growers would not tank mix pesticides and only apply fungicides at night when bees are not flying. For reference, the average pollination fee beekeepers reported receiving in 2021 was $189 per colony. Beekeepers were willing to give up $6.60 in revenue per colony if the grower plants the Brassica cover crop mix, and $5.60 per colony if the grower plants a cover crop mix that contains multiple species of brassicas, legumes and grains. If the beekeeper was paid 40% of their total pollination fee in advance of almond bloom, they were willing to give up $3.50 per colony in revenue. Assuming the preferred contract is adopted, beekeepers would be willing to accept a pollination fee per colony that is $18 lower than the standard agreement without those options, constituting a 10 percent reduction in the 2021 average fee reported by beekeepers. Using the industry standard of two hives per acre, this translates to a discount to the grower of $36 per acre.

Our findings show that there is potential for almond growers and beekeepers to work together to make mutually beneficial improvements in their almond pollination contracts. Importantly, two key improvements relate to additional pesticide restrictions and cover crops, practices likely to improve honey bee colony health and potentially lower abnormally high colony loss rates beekeepers have experienced over the last decade. High colony loss rates can severely impact beekeeping revenues from almond pollination, harming the economic sustainability of the U.S. commercial beekeeping industry. Thus, improved colony health will lead to a more stable supply of pollination services for almonds and other crops that bloom after almonds.