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California’s famed almond blossoms are opening up — despite unusual chill

California's famed almond orchards blossom every February, bringing tourists, influencers and bees. (Video: Leila Barghouty, John Farrell/The Washington Post)
4 min

Record rainfall, fluctuating temperatures and unusual snowfall in California have had farmers and orchard-goers wondering when the state’s famed almond blossoms would hit peak bloom. But despite this unusually chilly and wet winter — on top of worries of declining bee populations and supply chain issues fueled by the war in Ukraine — California’s almond trees are finally opening up for spring.

Last year, close to 100,000 tourists visited open almond orchards in Modesto, Calif. The region is home to over 120,000 acres of almond farms, many of which are operated by second and third generation family-farmers who open up portions of their crop for visitors each year.

Almond trees in Modesto, Calif., bloom every February, attracting tourists from around the world. (Video: Cameron Nielsen)

“We work with two ranchers and orchards specifically that allow people to go into the orchard during blossom season,” said Todd Aaronson, CEO of Visit Modesto, “and they sectioned off just a small section of the orchard, so the human impact is moderate.” That way, Aaronson said, only a few rows of trees risk getting their blooms plucked or prodded by visitors.

California’s Mediterranean climate — with mild winters and dry, hot summers — makes it one of few places on the planet where almond trees can thrive. The state produces approximately 80 percent of the world’s almond supply. The bloom usually begins around mid-February and lasts through mid-March. While in previous years, the crop has been threatened by drought and heat-waves, this year it was the opposite conditions that led to some uncertainty.

California is one of the few places in the world with the ideal climate to grow almonds making almond farming a significant business in the state. (Video: Cameron Nielsen)

“It's been unseasonably cold, so the blossoms really didn't pop until last week,” Aaronson said. “Mother Nature is truly in charge.”

Last week, parts of northern California were put under a rare blizzard warning. As the winter storm swept across California, snow was spotted in areas that haven’t seen it in years — including some orchards in the Sacramento Valley.

“There was snow on the ground between these and these orchards, which is not something you see every day in California,” said Luke Milliron, an orchard farm adviser for the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources. He spotted the unusual phenomenon on his drive into work on Thursday morning and stopped to take a picture.

Low temperatures aren’t the only thing threatening almond producers this year. California almond farmers suffered through last year’s fertilizer shortage as shipments were disrupted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On top of that, climate change and extreme weather continue to present challenges to bee populations that are critical for pollinating almond trees.

Every February, beekeepers bring their bees to California's almond orchards to aide in tree pollination and provide a source of food for growing hives. (Video: Cameron Nielsen)

The bloom coincides, naturally, with pollinating season, a tentpole time of year for the bee industry. Each year, beekeepers across the country are contracted by almond ranchers to ship their hives to the region to lead pollination, an essential part of a successful crop. According to the Department of Agriculture’s January National Honey Report, hive populations in some states have suffered this year due to extreme weather. The report predicts that due to hive losses from Hurricane Ian, Florida may only send about half the typical number of bees to California for almond pollination.

Bees provide cross pollination to California agriculture, bringing critical diversity to new generations of plants. (Video: Cameron Nielsen)

“The vast majority of the bees in the entire United States end up making a beautiful trip to California each February,” Milliron said, referring specifically to bees kept by U.S. beekeepers. After their work is done in California’s almond orchards, the bees move on. They will be needed by farmers of other crops that come into season later in the year.

Basically, the bees go on tour. “Just like Beyoncé,” Milliron quipped.

Since elements of the job can be hard on the bees, almond ranchers and beekeepers commit to contracts to protect and ensure the health of the hives and the crops.

“You don’t want just a box that the beekeeper says, ‘yeah, there’s some bees in there,’” Milliron said. “It’s in both of their self-interest to establish and foster this communication relationship, but it’s actually something that’s regulated as well.”

When California's almond orchards bloom, they provide an important source of pollen for healthy bee hives to grow and thrive. (Video: Cameron Nielsen)

California law requires beekeepers to register their bees with local governments, and the state’s “BeeWhere” program maps and tracks hives in real-time.

“Typically the beekeepers will stay in the region so that they can service the boxes and take the honey out, make sure the bees are okay every day,” Aaronson said. “No bees, no pollen, no flowers.”

For the sake of the bees, the orchards — as well as visitors who simply must have the coveted spring aesthetic for their Instagram grid — everyone is hoping California warms up.

Even if agriculture is not the first thing many think of when they think of California, Milliron said, “it’s a really important part of sustaining entire communities, especially here in the Central Valley, so it’s important that we are good stewards of the land.”

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