by Linda Cox
My husband Geary started the bee business part time in 1972. As the business grew he started working in bees full time in 1978. Our oldest son, Bryan, decided he wanted to have bees too so he started his own business. A few years down the road they decided it would be beneficial to both of them to form a partnership, thus CHF (Cox’s Honey Farms) was formed in 2003. Our youngest son also has a few hives but works with us full time.
We run 6,000-7,000 hives and employ on average 6 people full time year round. At our really busy times we may employ up to 10-12 people.
From early spring to fall most of our thoughts are how do we keep our bees in good shape for almond rentals. From August through February, we treat hives for mites, feed the hives with corn syrup, move hives, work the hives, all for quality of hives in almonds. That is 7 months of the year dedicated to making sure we have quality bees for the almonds.
Imagine a 6 month old baby that you look at and you know it is sick but it cannot communicate that to you. There are times we know the bees are sick but don’t always know what the problem is. We send in samples of the dead bees to have them tested to find out what is wrong with them. We constantly monitor them…but with a bee’s short life cycle every day is crucial.
In January we begin getting the bees ready for almond pollination. We usually start setting the bees in orchards in February. We use our 3 ten-wheelers and 2 one-tons to transport the bees into the orchards. While in the orchards the bees are checked to make sure they are the quality we have contracted for and any that are not are removed if they cannot be fixed.
From the almonds we move to cherries. From the cherries we move the hives to avocados, and from there most of them go to Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, & Wyoming. We do this hoping to make honey but also because there is just not enough natural food in California anymore. This has been made worse by the drought. We contract with trucking companies to haul our bees because it would take too many trips to use our own trucks. The bees are there from June to late September, early October. The hives that we do keep in California are used in cucumbers, melons, and sometimes cotton.
Beekeeping has gone from farmers being given a case of honey to place bees in almonds, to paying historically high prices for beehive rentals. The changes in beekeeping have been dramatic and fast, as a lot of ag has also seen. One of the major changes that have occurred is the loss of natural habitat. Most areas in the United States that can be farmed, are being farmed. With the loss of natural habitat, viruses, and varroa mites it has created the perfect storm for beekeepers. This makes it difficult to meet the ever increasing demand in almonds.
One hundred years ago honey was about the only source of income for beekeepers. By the 1960’s, 2/3 of the beekeeper’s income was honey, 1/3 pollination. That has been reversed to 2/3 income from pollination to 1/3 income in honey. In California there is almost no honey left to be made, especially during this drought.
So with this being said, we feed bees with syrup and pollen patties from August to October. This is very time consuming and costly. Then in November we start moving bees to the coastal areas and pray for early rains to bring on natural pollen supplies. This gets them out of the cold weather in the valley and into a warmer area. Then we start the process over again with feed to get the bees raising young bees. Then the last part of January to the first part of February we bring them back home to the Central Valley to get them ready for almond pollination. Beekeeping has gone from an 8 month a year job to 24/7/365 full time occupation.
My husband’s parents planted an almond orchard in the mid 60’s so my husband worked with his family in that orchard. From the time we married he had wanted to eventually own an almond orchard along with the bees to give us a little diversity. He was still helping his mom in her orchard after his dad passed away in 1975 but in 1998 we were able to plant our orchard. Now we have around 90 acres of almonds that my husband and I farm. With the orchards that CHF has we are farming around 200 acres total. We have many varieties such as Nonpariel, Buttes, Padres, Monterey’s, Fritz, Independents, & Carmels.