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Almond Grower Newsletter – Dec. 16, 2004

SCIENTIFIC AG CO.
P.O. Box 2144
Bakersfield, CA 93303

Office located at:
1734 D Street, Suite #2
Bakersfield, CA
24 hr. phone (661) 327-2631

The Bee Shortage

Most of you are aware of the tight bee supply for almonds. Some have asked me if it’s as bad as what they’ve heard. Actually, it’s worse.

I totally misjudged the extent of the bee shortage when I set our prices in May. I didn’t think that the crunch would hit until the new acreage came on line a few years down the road. What I didn’t anticipate was the failure of previously effective materials to control parasitic mites, esp. the varroa mite.

Bee colony numbers for many suppliers are down by 50% or more. One of our long-term beekeepers (several thousand colonies) is down 100%. I have heard similar stories for other suppliers nationwide. In some operations, colonies have collapsed even though mite populations were low; pathogenic viruses, spread by mites are felt to be the reason.

In past years, we have always had a back-up supply of bees, mainly because we never contract for 100% of any supplier’s bees-we anticipate a 20% winter loss (vs. a normal loss of 10%). As recently as last month, we had enough bees to cover all our growers, but things have deteriorated since then. On the bright side, some of our bee suppliers report that their colonies are in excellent shape. These beekeepers are using mite control materials that are illegal in California (although some are legal in other states and in Canada. Also, we get about half our bee supply from Southern California, and the early rains have provided early bee forage that should build up colonies to pollinating strength by February.

At this time, our total bee supply will fall about 10% short of grower needs. We won’t know for sure how short we will be until late January (after out-of-state beekeepers sort through their stockpiled colonies).

So that each of our growers gets treated fairly, we will allocate our available bee supply. This means that you will be getting about 10% fewer colonies than what you ordered (we won’t know the exact number until late January). Because we will maintain colony standards (8-frame, average strength) we feel that even with the cutback you will have more than enough working bees in your orchard to accomplish the pollination job. In fact, the gap between the number of working bees in your orchard and the average CA almond orchard will probably be greater than it’s ever been.

We do not recommend that you look for additional bees, but if you wish to, some bee suppliers are listed below. Most are beekeepers that also broker hives from others.

(661)
Bret Adee – 303-5031
Rick Riggs – 204-2631

(209)
Charleen Carroll – 823-1386
Linda Hicken – 823-5141
Lyle Johnston – 617-2537
Gary Glidden – 544-3839

(559)
Bob Felker – 246-2337
Dan Kochergan – 960-8008
Tom Laury – 292-7161
Keith Newton – 277-2456
Ed Harmon – 896-6075
Don Burkett – 638-3455
Steve Godlin – 732-4643

(530)
Mike Rosso – 713-0948
Mark Hoover – 864-0840

(650)
Alan Buckley – 851-3304

If you do secure additional bees, please let us know so that we can reduce our commitment accordingly.

In addition to the above, Gerald Bodily, Selma, (559) 896-2355, has a limited supply of Blue Orchard Bees (not enough to do a significant acreage). USDA recommends 400 female BOBs per acre for almonds. Because an 8-frame honey bee colony will put out 4,000 worker bees per acre, we feel that 1 strong honey bee colony per acre is sufficient.

It’s Crazy

We feel fortunate that only 3 of our beekeepers (representing about 900 colonies) have left us for a higher price. Our core group of beekeepers is sticking with us because we have a 20-year track record of treating beekeepers fairly.

Run-of-the-mill bee colonies are being rented for $80/colony. As one of our beekeepers put it, “Joe, it’s crazy-I’m giving you my best bees and I’m getting $80 for my culls.” There are unconfirmed reports of bees going for over $100/colony; in some cases, growers want to make sure their crop insurance is valid.

We received numerous calls in November from growers wanting bees, calls we don’t usually get until January. Many callers indicate they would pay “anything” to get bees, but we have turned them all down. Significantly, not one caller has asked about colony strength.

Some beekeepers are splitting their colonies (making 2 to 4 colonies out of one) and purchasing queen bees (from Hawaii) for the splits. These splits might average 2 to 4 frames at best, far lower bee populations than the colonies you will be getting. You may see some empty bee boxes in some almond orchards, with 1 or 2 frames of honey in them (to attract robber bees and give the appearance of good activity).

An 8-frame bee colony will collect up to 6 times as much almond pollen as a 4-frame colony, another reason why we feel you will have ample bees for your orchards even with our cutting back on numbers.

Several of you have offered to pay us more for bees this year than our agreed price, and I truly appreciate the gesture. Unfortunately, offering even $200/colony for bees won’t get you any more or any better bees at this time. Your money would be better served by a research donation to the Almond Board specifying that the money be used for work on varroa mite control. Until the mite problem is solved, the bee supply for almonds will continue to shrink. We anticipate that some of our long-term bee suppliers will be out of business in 2006. This year is a dress rehearsal for when the real crunch hits in a few years.

Single-story colonies

We will be delivering a limited number of single story colonies to some of you this coming year; we have always delivered 2 (or 3) story colonies in past years. Strong single-story colonies will contain the requisite 8 frames of bees (and will often work at cooler temperatures). When counting your colonies after delivery, count each colony that has an individual entrance. There is a truckload of singles stockpiled in the open field at the NE corner of Kimberlina and Hwy. 99 (if you want to see what they look like.

One beekeeper-broker will be renting several thousand singles, some from 2 good Texas beekeepers we have worked with in the past (you can get twice as many singles on a truck). If we rent singles in future years, it will be at a lower rate than doubles.

Performance-enhancing Chemicals

As mentioned before, most of the beekeepers that are controlling mites are those that are using illegal chemicals. There is an analogy here with the current flap over the use of performance enhancing substances by athletes. In both instances, it is felt that banned substances are necessary to compete. It is difficult to be righteous about such transgressions when some of the rule-breakers are on your team.

Just as there are long-term health consequences for athletes that use steroids to enhance performance, there are long-term consequences for bee colonies that are bombarded with chemicals (both legal and illegal) to control mites. These chemicals are absorbed by and build up in the wax in comb and there is strong evidence that this contaminated wax retards or stops bee larva development. The remedy is to replace contaminated combs every few years, an expensive undertaking. Some chemically-contaminated bee colonies are being sold to unsuspecting buyers, and the seller is starting over from scratch with clean combs.

Texas Bees and Fire Ant Regulations

California’s Red Imported Fire Ant regulations are still keeping Texas beekeepers (and beekeepers from other southern states) from bringing bees to almonds. A Texas RIFA inspection certificate should allow TX bees free passage into California. Texas beekeepers are willing to sign a compliance agreement allowing any RIFA colonies to be destroyed at the orchard. At present, this isn’t sufficient to get TX bees free entry to CA.

Future Pollination Prices

With honey prices declining, almond pollination income will be the sole source of income for some bee operations. It costs roughly $120 to maintain a colony of bees for a year. Look for future almond pollination prices to approach that level. At this time, beekeepers are more concerned with keeping their colonies alive than with pollination prices. There are several promising mite controls in the works; whether they’ll be available in 2005 is the big question.

Cheap Bees for Late-blooming Varieties

Some growers have cut back on bees where they have Nonpareil blocks adjacent to hardshells (Butte, Padre, Mission). There are 2 super-late-blooming varieties-Ruby and Morley; they bloom about 10 days after Nonpareil. Ruby-Morley growers could get cheap (even free) bees that could be transferred from Nonpareil blocks. Visit the U.C. varietal plot in your area during bloom to see if Ruby and Morley would work for you.

Theft

With the bee shortage, be vigilant about protecting your bees from theft this coming season. Consider providing locked gates for bee drives.

Bee Stings

If a person is allergic to bee stings, time is of the essence in getting him to an emergency center for an epinephrine shot. Monitor your workers that work alone in case they pass out and are unable to summon help.

We realize that farm equipment can knock over bee hives. Please notify us right away if this happens and we can have one of our field crew straighten up the hives. Exposed bee colonies can die out rapidly.

Keep in Touch

We have a 24-hour phone, and I’m easy to get hold of. I’ll be attending 2 national bee meetings in January, one in Tucson (Jan. 4-7) and one in Reno (Jan. 11-15). There’s a chance, albeit a small one, that we can secure more bees at these meetings; mainly, we hope to talk with potential suppliers for 2006.

I’ll be checking with you later in January to see how your winter work is coming in preparation for bee deliveries.

Happy Holidays

We are pleased at the current high prices almond growers are enjoying-you deserve it. Like you, I can remember when almonds were 80 cents/lb. a few years back, and that you paid your bee bills promptly, without complaining, during these tough times.

We’ll do our very best to provide you with quality bees during these tough times for beekeepers. By dealing with us you’re in much better shape than most almond growers for this coming year.

Enjoy a prosperous 2005, and many prosperous years to come. And for Christmas, Peace and Joy

Joe Traynor, Mgr.