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Almond Grower Newsletter – May 20, 2004

2005 Bee Rental Prices
Enclosed is our pollination price schedule for 2005. Our 2005 price represents a $5.50/colony increase over 2004. In order to maintain our colony strength standards, we are forced to make this increase.

We urge you to make pollination arrangements well before bloom. The strongest bee colonies are always the first to get contracted.*

*consider reducing your 2005 bee needs. See COLONY RECOMMENDATIONS below.

Recap of 2004 Season
We have our bee supply for almonds set by October each year but we always anticipate a drop in supply as winter losses take their toll on bee colonies (no beekeeper can guarantee that a strong colony in October will be a strong colony in February). We have a back-up bee supply in case of extreme winter losses but this year our back-up supply was gone by December. Several beekeepers bailed out on us (out of written agreements) in December and January not because of winter loss but because they could rent all their bees at top prices without having to run the gauntlet of our colony strength inspection. These beekeepers stopped the costly supplemental feeding program that is required to get 8-frame colonies and rented field-run colonies at top prices.

One beekeeper that left us opted for a frame count bonus payment where he got a fancy price for 12-frame colonies. We haven’t gone to this type of payment bonus because a grower could, as some have, get stuck with a pollination bill that far exceeds what he has budgeted for bees. In most years, our 8-frame colonies will exceed 10 frames, as those of you that have looked at your bees with us can confirm. Our goal is not to just meet our 8-frame standard each year but to exceed it by as much as possible.

As our bee supply dwindled in January, I wound up purchasing 350 bee colonies (and turned them over to one of our beekeepers to operate). Between this purchase and cutting back on a few orchards, we were able to fulfill all of our committments to growers and to keep in tact our 30 year record of 100% delivery to growers that have committed to us.

As in past years, but more so this year, we had numerous opportunities to make a fast buck by jockeying prices for last-minute orders. We set our almond pollination prices (to both growers and beekeepers) by July of the previous year and once set, we don’t (ever) change them. This policy is not based on any altruistic motive but solely because it is a good longterm business policy.

Bee Supply for 2005 and Beyond
In light of the acknowledged bee shortage this year one would think that the situation would only be worse for the 2005 season. Actually, at this writing, it looks like there will be an ample supply of bees for 2005 for several reasons: some beekeepers are increasing their colony count in anticipation of a strong almond demand; colonies lost in last year’s fires should be replaced and, most importantly, bearing almond acreage will not increase significantly. A wild card is bee losses to parasitic mites as current mite controls are erratic.

Continued drought in the western states will make it difficult for beekeepers to maintain colony strength during the winter. There will be ample bee colonies, but colony strength will suffer unless beekeepers undertake an expensive fall-winter feeding program. A large bee supplier (and his friends) is currently negotiating an agreement with a large west-side almond operation to take field-run bees – in good years, the bees could well be of 8-frame strength but in poor years, the grower would have to take the bees “as is”. This is a great deal for the beekeeper – no responsibility for colony strength – and the grower, who had problems getting bees this year, appears anxious to finalize the deal. Deals like this make it more difficult for us to supply you with a quality product at a fair price. Several of our beekeepers have told us they would accept a lower price if they could bring field-run bees. We haven’t gone to such a program, and don’t intend to, because we don’t feel it is in the best interest of the growers we work with.

With bearing almond acreage to increase by 100,000 acres in 2008, the bee supply situation a few years down the road will again be critical unless almond growers adopt strategies to negate a bee supply crisis.

Strategies to Insure an Ample Bee Supply
The U.S. bee supply has held at around 2.4 million colonies in recent years and is more likely to decrease than increase in coming years. The coming bee crunch (train wreck) for almond growers down the road can be avoided with minimal effort. If every almond grower in California cut his bee needs by 1/2 colony per acre there would be no bee supply problem. Some growers are using 2-1/2 to 3 colonies per acre; these rates, if the colonies are strong, are simply not justified. Also, take a look at the colony recommendations on the accompanying price schedule. A 100% compatible varietal planting requires only half the bees as a 50% compatible planting.

The 2004 almond pollination season can be looked at as a fortuitous and timely instructional tool on bee requirements for almonds. During the blooming period, everyone anticipated a short crop due to marginal bee weather. The current estimate of a 1.1 billion lb crop indicates that the bees did their job and that growers that used an extra 1/2 to 1 colony per acre for insurance wasted their money.

The reason for this year’s bumper crop was the extremely good post-bloom weather. A long stretch of warm-sunny days immediately after bloom enabled almond trees to retain the maximum number of pollinated nuts*. Which would you rather have: ideal bloom weather followed by marginal post-bloom weather, or marginal bloom weather followed by ideal post-bloom weather. Prior to this year, virtually all almond growers would opt for ideal bloom weather; many are now re-thinking this opinion. This year proved that most almond growers use too many bees.

Another strategy to insure a bee supply for almonds is to develop almond varieties that bloom in March. Bees could then be transferred from Nonpareil-blooming orchards to late-blooming orchards for a nominal transfer charge. Pollination prices for March blooming apples, cherries and prunes in California range from 0-$30. The Tardy Nonpareil variety blooms well after Mission and harvests well before Mission. Genetic material is available for other March-blooming almond varieties.

There are close to 600,000 bee colonies in Canada, two-thirds of them in the 3 western provinces. Canada does not allow bees to be imported from the U.S. due to mite concerns but with mites now well established in Canada, these restrictions could be eased. Canada is also concerned about importing Africanized bees but confining Canadian bees to the Sacramento Valley should minimize this potential threat (and it is likely that the Canadian climate is not conducive to the proliferation of Africanized bees).

* the importance of post-bloom weather was outlined in the classic Almond Pollination Handbook (1993; soon to be a collector’s item). We still have a few copies that are free to growers that rent bees from us. All others, send $10 and we’ll send a copy (all proceeds go to bee resarch).

Single-Story Colonies
A number of single-story (1-box) colonies were rented this year at regular pollination prices. Renting ”singles” allows beekeepers to put twice as many colonies on a truck and is particularly appealing to long-haul beekeepers. You can get 8 frames of bees in a single, but everything has to be just right for the single to be effective. If the bees don’t have enough storage room, they can stop working; if there is too much room, the bees can starve. If you’re interested in singles at a reduced price, let us know and we can probably get you some.

Are Almond Pollination Prices Fair?
High pollination prices are more than fair for beekeepers that deliver strong, 8-frame or better colonies. To deliver strong bee colonies in the middle of winter (almonds bloom in February) requires considerable time, skill and expense on the part of beekeepers. High rental prices for weak bee colonies are unfair. As stated in a recent publication “Beekeepers who rent weak or dead colonies of bees tarnish not only their own reputation but also that of other beekeepers.” (Beekeeping Basics, Penn State AES, 2004).

Honey prices have dropped significantly from the high of $1.50/lb a year ago and are approaching the break-even point of $1/lb, as imports from China and Argentina, temporarily stalled by anti-dumping suits, are increasing. Numerous cost studies show that beekeeping is not a profitable business. This is best evidenced by the fact that U.S. bee colony numbers (unlike almond acres) are remaining static. Chemical controls for parasitic mites are failing due to mite resistance and there are no promising chemicals on the horizon. Chemical companies are simply not interested in developing miticides for beekeepers because of a relatively tiny market for such chemicals (and coming up with a chemical that will control mites without harming bees is a tall order). Mite resistant bees that are also good honey producers and effective pollinators are still a number of years in the future.

There will always be a few beekeepers that can supply bees at what appears to be bargain prices just as there are almond growers that can supply cheaper almonds. As Blue Diamond CEO Doug Youngdahl put it ”It was a huge mistake for a grower to get up in public and say he can produce almonds for 65 cents per pound as one grower did in 1999.” According to Youngdahl, market prices are based on supply and demand, “not on the lowest cost producer.” (Westem Farm Press, April 17, 2004). Youngdahl further states that “Lack of a fair increase in price today will mean a dramatic increase in price tommorrow.” (Almond Facts, Nov/Dec, 2003).

Amen, for almond pollination prices.

Texas bees
Texas has 140,000 bee colonies and some midwestern beekeepers that used to bring their hives to California now winter the bees in TX (we currently contract with 1 TX beekeeper, vs. 4 a few years ago). Texas has rigid pre-departure fire-ant rules and inspections for any bees shipped to California – far more rigid than any done by CA or Arizona – yet California refuses to accept TX inspection certificates that the bees are free of fire ants. Allowing bees with TX fire-ant certificates into CA without a re-inspection at the AZ or CA border would allow many more TX bees into CA. The hives could be re-inspected (as they currently are) upon delivery to almond orchards and, if any fire-ants were found, the ants could be eradicated or the bee equipment burned. Without pressure from almond growers, it is not likely that California would allow this.

Zero bee thefts this year
We believe the micro-chips we provided our beekeepers and the Warning signs, put a stop to bee thefts in your orchards this year.

Funding Bee Research
Last month our company donated $10,000.00 for bee research. Almond growers (via the Almond Board) have been generous in funding bee research in past years.

Thanks
Your past pollination business is appreciated and we hope to work with you again in 2005.

Joe Traynor, Mgr.

Correction
In our Jan. 5 newsletter I compared pollen production with lint production and stated that it would take “a mere 16 weeks to fill a small pillow with lint from Martin Hein’s navel”. I based this figure on the lint that Mr. Hein sent when I requested a week’s supply of lint. Mr. Hein recently told me that the lint he sent was from his clothes dryer; he’d forgotten my request and sent the dryer lint to put a stop to my phone calls to him. I chastised Mr. Hein and accused him of showing an appalling lack of respect for the scientific process. I had submitted the lint data for publication in Nature where my paper was returned with scathing reviewer comments; “inferior methodology” and “moronic conclusion” (that navel lint was self generating) were 2 of the kinder comments, remarks that dealt a death blow to my already fragile standing in the scientific community. Mr Hein countered that he had suffered numerous cutting comments on his personal hygiene including cruel remarks about the size and shape of his navel. Well, Tough Petunia, Martin! – what goes around comes around (and to those that asked, Marty’s navel does indeed resemble a large cauliflower)

COLONY RECOMMENDATIONS (8-frame colonies)
Description Colonies per acre (8-frame)*
50% compatible plantings.
most hardshell plantings and Nonpareil with most varieties 2 cols./acre
100% compatible plantings.
Nonpareil w. Fritz, Winters, Peerless 1
Mixed 50% & 100% compatible.
e.g., 1/2 Nonpareil, 1/4 Fritz, 1/4 other 1-1/2
Hardshell blocks adjacent to softshell.
or softshell adj. to hardshell of equal or greater acreage. 1-1/2
*these are maximum amounts recommended; most plantings can get by with 1/2 col. per acre less.

See your farm advisor or nursery for variety compatibility classifications, currently Fritz is the only major variety that is 100% compatible with Nonpareil and blooms with Nonpareil.