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Almond Grower Newsletter – December 3, 2009

67 Minutes
Try to take time – maybe on a weekday when its pouring rain – to view the enclosed DVD, The Last Beekeeper which was shown recently on The Green Channel (if you didn’t get a copy, I should be able to get you one). The camera follows 2 beekeepers, Matt Hutchens and Nicole Uribarri, as they tally their winter losses before placing bees in almond orchards. Pertinent comments by bee scientists are also included.

Two things to watch for in the DVD:

1. Notice the good bee activity around dead hives, making it seem that there are no problems. Much of this activity is robbing behavior by bees from live colonies. This activity fools some growers into thinking they have strong colonies while the boxes (hives) do not house a colony. Years ago, an enterprising beekeeper placed saucers of sugar syrup inside empty hives, attracting bees from miles away. The almond grower was pleased with his active hives.

2. 4 lb package bees from Australia were imported to fill empty hives at a cost of $100 to $120 per package. Thousands of Aussie packages have been placed in almond orchards in recent years (20,000 to 30,000 per year). A 4# package will cover 4 to 5 frames of bees. It would take two 4# packages to make the 8 to 10+ frames you get from us, but I know of no beekeeper that puts more than one 4# package in an empty hives (some, to their credit, use these packages to boost up 4-frame colonies to pollinating strength. Any beekeeper that uses Aussie packages is, at best, breaking even on almond pollination.

The beekeepers, Matt and Nicole, were apparently chosen at random. They are not typical of all beekeepers (if they were, the almond industry would be in deep do-do). Any beekeeper, though, can experience the problems shown here. Some of our beekeepers have had similar problems in recent years and likely will again this coming year. Our colony-inspection program insures that sub-standard bee colonies do not wind up in your orchard. This sometimes means putting a beekeeper on the road to bankruptcy.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)
CCD is real. Winter loss of bees dropped from 35% to 30% this past winter, but 30% losses are not sustainable – if you had to replace 30% of your trees every year, you’d be out of business in a few years. For every colony that dies on the CCD battlefield, many more suffer health problems along with diminished strength. The current consensus is that a combination of varroa mites and viruses is the cause of CCD. To date, there are no good remedies for CCD.

The colonies that we place in your orchards are not normal. They are the result of painstaking selection and culling by our suppliers. Many beekeepers refuse to work with us of our reputation that we are tough on grading; they see other orchards stocked with sub-par colonies and feel they’ll come out ahead by making their own arrangements – by renting all, or most of their bees, rather than a small percentage.

2010 Bee Condition
The health of almond bees is determined to a large extent on how well they fared the previous summer. For most of the U.S., bees did not do well due to weather conditions – drought in many areas (esp. California) and too much rain in other areas (many parts of the Dakotas). As a result, the honey crop is down and bee strength for almonds will also likely be down. In the Dakotas, many beekeepers delayed the important August mite treatment in hopes of harvesting a late honey crop – high mite levels are reported in many of these colonies.

A true picture of bee colony health for almonds won’t come into focus until January. As happens every year, I expect calls from our suppliers that their bees won’t make grade. Fortunately, our back-up supply of bees is greater this year because two of our large growers cut back or dropped us due to price considerations. Be assured that you will get your full complement of strong colonies from us, as you have every year.

We have your back.

Crazy – Like a Fox
You may have endured comments from your neighbors that you’re crazy to pay so much for bees. Yes, our rental price/colony (for 8+ frame colonies) is usually higher than the market rate (although some beekeepers on a bonus payment schedule fare better than ours) but by using fewer colonies per acre, you are minimizing your per acre costs.

Pollination – A Community Effort
An extensive 1976 UC, Davis almond pollination study concluded that:

The ability of bees to forage well away from their hives, even during very coldweather in early spring is evident in this study…These observations suggest that the density and distribution of colonies used for almond pollination should be determined on a community basis rather than on the basis of individual orchards.

If your bee colonies are stronger than those next door, you will help to pollinate his orchard. Invite your neighbor to look at your bees with us (and you) and make this offer: we will pay him $5/colony for any colony less than 8 frames that we find in your orchard if he will look at the bees on his ranch (with his supplier) and pay you at the same rate; time limit, one hour or $100 cap (time up after 20 sub-par colonies are found).

It is possible that after such a deal is concluded that your neighbor will be guilty of breaking the 7th Pollination Commandment: Do not covet thy neighbor’s bees.

If (when) your banker or accountant complains about the price you’re paying for bees, invite him to look at the bees with us.

Clueless in Carruthers

A large grower-processor in the Fresno-Madera area has gotten with his almond friends to form a cartel consisting of around 60,000 acres. This cartel informed their list of beekeepers that they will be paying $117/colony for bees in 2010 – take it or leave it. The cartel is already showing fracture lines as some growers are paying much higher prices to beekeepers they feel have done a good job for them in the past. Three of our top beekeepers this past year are those that refused low-ball grower offers in 2009. It can take management inputs of $200/colony or more for beekeepers to come up with 8+ frame colonies in February (getting them in June is relatively easy). Put downward pressure on pollination prices and beekeepers will reduce inputs and then hope and pray that the grower won’t complain about colony strength.

Research $
The $1/colony we collected from your this year for bee research was matched by our beekeepers and distributed as follows:

Project ApisM $50,000
Washington State Bee Health Study $20,000
USDA bee-almond study (Frank Eischen) $2,400

Project ApisM has given over $300,000 to bee research since its inception only 2 years ago. See www.projectapism.org for more information.

Fungicide Hazard
Recent studies have shown that fungicides are more harmful to bees than previously thought. Pristine, Rovral, Ziram and Captan are more hazardous than most. You don’t see a kill at the hives, but when bees ingest contaminated pollen (after they leave almonds) they can suffer. Also, fungicides inhibit the beneficial fungi that make pollen more usable to bees. Time your fungicide applications so as to minimize bee hazard – after 3PM (when there is little or no bee activity on the trees) or when bees are not flying.

Thanks
I’m sure you’ve been approached numerous times for cheaper bees. You’re loyalty to us during these difficult economic times is noted and appreciated. We will continue to pull out all stops to ensure we deserve your trust.

Best Wishes for the Holiday Season – call us anytime for an update on your bees.

Joe Traynor – jotraynor@aol.com