Colorado honeybees go nuts for California almonds
The other day our neighbor Margo stopped by to drop off a plateful of holiday treats, as she always does around Christmas. Her famous homemade biscotti nestles among dried apples sprinkled with cinnamon and leathery pear slices that sparkle with a singular sweetness. The fruit comes from venerable old trees outside Margo and Howard’s tidy Peach Valley Victorian. Some years Howard lets me pick pears from their tall tree.
Completing the ensemble of goodies, salted dark chocolate binds together clusters of almonds.
For me, an emblem of Christmas is a big bowl of mixed nuts still in their hard shells, a nutcracker and perhaps some sharp tools to help dig out the nutmeats. Mom never failed to set one out for the holiday season, and a bowl of nuts conjures memories of holidays, childhood and home.
Nuts are a winter food. They store well and are full of sustaining oils; ask any squirrel. Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds. I never thought much about where they came from.
The almonds are not a local delicacy. The nuts originated in Mediterranean Europe, where they evolved in concert with the European honeybee on which they depend for pollination services to achieve any respectable harvest.
Most of Ed’s beehives are wintering in California. While we endured sub-zero temperatures, Ed’s bees presumably donned sunglasses and dreamed sweet nectar dreams (not sugar plums) in sunny California.
Ed sent 60 colonies to California this year, piggybacked on one of the truckloads a much bigger operator sends from Western Colorado to the Central Valley. From time to time, Ed holds up an almond pinched between his thumb and forefinger, eyeballs it and says, “Maybe one of my bees pollinated this almond,” before he pops it into his mouth.
The Chinese are crazy for almonds, and closer to home an advertising blitz aimed to convince Americans of their health benefits. In California there’s been a frenzy of planting almond groves, where 80 percent of the world’s almonds now grow. Farmers plow under vineyards and cotton fields every year to make way for more almonds. Nurseries book orders years into the future.
The flowering trees that produce the coveted nuts are only half the demand equation. Almond growers rely on honeybees, and without them their yields are crippled. So dependent are the trees on the bees that crops increase sixfold when Apis mellifera is present. Virtually all the commercial honey bees in America now arrive by the truckload in California every winter to supply almond groves with up to 1.5 million colonies.
Lyle Johnston, a third-generation Colorado beekeeper from Fort Lupton, brokers the traveling bees. He describes the sight of thousands of acres blossoming almonds as “just stunning.” His “aw, shucks” manner belies his success organizing tens of thousands of hives and millions of dollars in pollination fees moving between Colorado beekeepers and wealthy California agribusiness.
“That’s really a sight to see when all them trees are in bloom,” Lyle says. “You can see for miles just white blooms across the top of the trees. And it smells great. It’s got a great aroma for the bees to draw them in to it to pollinate those trees.”
Ed dreams of following his bees out to the almond groves one spring to witness the spectacle firsthand. Retirement from his winter ski patrolling job and a front row seat at what he calls “the Superbowl of beekeeping” are both visible on his horizon.
It came as a great surprise to me that walnuts grow right here on Colby Farm. Two trees that flank the driveway sprout green balls like Christmas tree ornaments. Peel away the thick outer flesh to find the walnut shell inside sheathed in a dark second skin. In the fall the nuts rain to the ground, ejected from the outer skin as it dries out and cracks open.
This year we had a bumper crop. Ed mowed the grass under the trees to make the nuts easy to find, and every week I’d gather more. The bigger challenge is getting the nuts out of their shells. I do it with an old-fashioned nutcracker when I have the time, which isn’t often enough.
Ed surfed the Internet looking for slicker devices. We found amusing YouTube videos, mostly of gray-haired men from the South where wild black walnuts proliferate, proudly demonstrating their inventions. Some of the labor-saving devices attach to your power drill. I applaud their ingenuity, but I’m sticking with my nutcracker.
Marilyn Gleason lives in Peach Valley, and welcomes your comments and ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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