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Almond Grower Newsletter – Feb. 12, 2009

BEE-CONOMICS – 2009 ALMOND POLLINATION

A Glut of Bees?
You’ve likely seen the ads in your local newspaper (from Bakersfield, to Sacramento) and you’ve likely been contacted by beekeepers for bees at bargain prices – a big switch from the last few years when there was a shortage of bees.

The reasons for the apparent surplus of bees in January are several-fold: more older acreage being pulled out than anticipated, growers cutting back on colonies per acre and less CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) in bee operations. Also, some beekeepers bring bees to California every year without a contract, in anticipation of a hefty almond pollination price.

Getting 8-frame Colonies
To get a strong bee colony in the middle of winter (when almonds bloom) requires considerable feeding expense – up to $40/colony or more. Beekeepers that have a solid written agreement for 8-frame colonies will invest the necessary $ to build their bees to 8-frame strength. Many beekeepers do not invest in supplemental feeding because they figure it is not cost-effective to do so.

Strong colonies for almonds require extensive feeding before and after almond bloom. Feed needs of 8-frame colonies are far, far greater than for 4-frame colonies because of the simple equation that more bees consume more feed. Colonies that do not have adequate fall-winter feed will not be strong colonies for almonds. . We have financed some of our beekeepers so that they can afford the fall-winter feeding that is necessary to get the kind of bees you see in your orchard.

The Game
In past years, beekeepers with 4-frame (or less) colonies that brought bees to California without a written agreement were always able to place them. They knew that when the inevitable bee short- age occurred in Jan.-Feb., growers would not ask about colony strength but would be desperate to get “hives” (the wooden structure that houses the colony). These beekeepers invested no money in supplemental feeding and could make out like bandits even at a discounted prices (and many did not give discounts on these last-minute orders). It was a nice game that these beekeepers played – waiting until the last minute to place bees, then getting top-dollar for substandard colonies. This year, the word is out among beekeepers: “The game don’t work no more.”

Current Status of Bee Supply
The current “surplus” of bees is being rapidly depleted. Some of this surplus included good colonies, which became available when growers cancelled their written agreements for one reason or another. Most of this surplus is substandard colonies from beekeepers used to playing the Game

You may have seen the ad in your local paper: “3,000 colonies of bees @ $75/colony.” Turns out these colonies were placed on a large almond ranch in the Modesto area and were kicked off the ranch after they were inspected. The remaining good colonies in the “surplus” are rapidly being placed and it looks like most of the substandard colonies will be left out in the cold – and rightfully so. There has been a shortage of strong 9+ frame colonies in almonds every year for the last 20 years; there will be a shortage this year and in the years to come.

Looking at Bees
When you purchase a 5-gallon can of Roundup you can be pretty sure it contains 5 gallons. When you rent a hive of bees you have no idea of what you are getting until you open the box(es). Our bee inspectors look at every load of bees in your orchard to make sure that your colonies meet our 8-frame standard. We have purposely left our standard at a conservative 8 frames; in most years we will be at 10 to 12 frames as those of you that have looked at the bees with us can attest. One of our field people – Bill Mathewson, Neil Trent, Steve Wernett – or myself, will contact you to make an appointment to look at your bees. We can pretty much guarantee that you won’t get stung (you can stay in the pickup with the windows rolled up if necessary).

Looking at the bees is not only in your best interest, but also in ours. You are paying a premium price for bees and I want you to know what you are getting for that price. Our bees may cost more per colony, but you can reduce pollination expenses by using fewer colonies per acre (as many of you have). Most beekeepers, including ours, would rather rent 4 to 6-frame colonies at a reduced price (even $75/colony) than rent 8-frame colonies at a premium price. Many, even most, beekeepers do not want to work with us because they know we strictly enforce our standards with a thorough inspection of their colonies. The beekeepers that do work with us are proud of the product they put out and are compensated accordingly.

Pristine (and Rovral)
Fungicides are relatively non-toxic to bees, with 3 exceptions: Captan, Rovral and Pristine. These fungicides affect the brood (bee larvae) when the brood is fed fungicide-contaminated pollen (mature bees are not affected).

Captan is usually not a problem because it is usually applied at petal fall, when there is little or no pollen in the orchard. Both Rovral and Pristine can be problematic, but only if there is significant pollen in the orchard. Bees have collected most almond pollen by 3PM so late afternoon applications of Rovral or Pristine are preferable.

2010 Pollination Prices.
At this time we are considering lowering our prices for 2010 and are trying to figure out how to do so without compromising colony quality.

Our beekeepers need to know by July whether or not to invest money in a fall feeding program. Your current agreement with us remains in effect for 2010 unless cancelled by you by July 1st. We will be sending you a letter in June and reminding you that you have until July 1 to cancel your agreement if you wish to do so.

Both almond growers and beekeepers are going through some tough time. Your loyalty to us during these difficult times is greatly appreciated.

Our Big Advantage (for you)
In this age of CCD any beekeeper, no matter how skilled, can suffer unexpected losses. This year, one of our top beekeepers had a 40% cull-out rate to meet our 8-frame standard (last year it was 15%). This year one of our beekeepers that culled out 75% of his colonies in 2008 (he delivered 800 out of 3,000) culled out only 20% this year. Winter losses don’t become known until late January or early February. Every year, including this year, we are adjusting our bee supply up to the last minute in order to supply you with your full complement of 8-frame colonies.

The Game we play is a winning game for you.

Joe Traynor