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Almond Grower Newsletter – May 30, 2007

Scientific Ag Co., Bakersfield, CA
Joe Traynor, Mgr.

2008 Almond Pollination Prices
Enclosed is our 2008 Price Schedule for almond pollination – 2008 prices are $15 a colony higher than this year. Your current agreement with us remains in effect for 2008 at 2008 prices unless cancelled by you by July 1, 2007.

2007 Pollination Season
The year started off a little rocky for early-blooming varieties but got progressively better as the days went by with the late-blooming hardshells enjoying excellent pollination weather. Just as important, post-bloom weather was ideal – warm, sunny days which minimized the drop of pollinated nutlets. The combination of good bloom weather and post-bloom weather has given another record almond crop.

What about the bees? Our bees were again 8 frames of bees or better. Statewide, bee colony strength was significantly less. One respected beekeeper/broker estimates that 1/3 of the colonies in almonds this year would average less than 4 frames, 1/3 would average 4 to 6 frames and 1/3 8 frames or better (see Addendum at end of this letter). I feel this is roughly what occurs every year.

Colonies per acre
That we again have a bumper crop of almonds with (again) substandard bee colony strength statewide, tells me that growers using 2 or more 8+ frame colonies per acre are renting too many bees (growers using 4 colonies/acre of 4-frame bees may not be renting enough). Consider cutting back to 1-1/2 cols./acre for 2008 with 8+ frame colonies. Three of our growers have used 1 to 1-1/2 colonies per acre for several years and have still maintained excellent yields. Equally important, make sure your neighbor rents 8+ frame colonies (we probably won’t have enough bees to supply them but ask them to put pressure on their bee supplier). In several instances this year, bees from our strong colonies were flying across the road to pollinate orchards with weak colonies.

2007 – A Tough Year for Bees
Getting 8+ frames of bees for almonds this year was probably more difficult than its ever been. Widespread drought in the Midwestern states led to malnourished bees that had a tough time surviving the winter. Some beekeepers, seeing the big bucks for almond pollination, split their colonies (2 for 1) and wound up with 2 weak colonies instead of one strong one.

One large Westside grower rented several thousand “field-run bees” at $125/colony. He had the bees inspected and maybe got a 5-frame average, but was stuck because his agreement stated “field-run bees”.

Another large grower signed an 8-frame contract for $125/colony. His supplier told him in the fall that his bees would only make 6 frames at best – as far as I know, the grower paid him the $125/colony.

We field calls from our beekeepers every year from December through January – “Joe, my bees aren’t up to your standards”. Every year we scramble for make-up bees in December-January and this past season was no different. We are usually able to secure good replacement colonies by phone because we enjoy a solid reputation (“tough, but fair”) in the beekeeping community.

2007 – A Tougher Year for Bees?
Close to half of almond bees come from California and because of extreme drought conditions this year, there is no question that 2007 will be the toughest year ever for California beekeepers. Some beekeepers have already started to provide artificial feed for their bees (an expensive undertaking). Summer alfalfa/cotton bee locations are half of what they were 10 years ago (the land is now in almonds).

U.S. Extension Apiculturist, Eric Mussen, in his March-April Newsletter states:

Unless I miss my guess, we are going to see significant losses of honey bee colonies again this winter in California simply because of the weather and its effects on the bees’ food supply.

At this time, bee forage conditions in the Midwest look better than last year but we won’t know for sure until later. The corn (for ethanol) craze that is sweeping the Midwest means a loss of premium clover and alfalfa locations for some beekeepers.

The Way It Is
For any beekeeper, coming up with 8+ frame colonies in February is a tough proposition. Strong colonies in February are not normal but must be manufactured by expensive supplemental feeding (of pollen-protein mixes). Given the choice, most beekeepers would rather rent field-run bees at a steep discount than 8+ frame bees at a premium – its more cost effective for them to do so.

The main problem in our business, esp. in this day of expanding almond acreage and strong demand for bees, is securing top-notch beekeepers that can meet our colony strength standards. Most beekeepers don’t want to work with us because they know we enforce our standards.

Record bee rental fees are forcing more growers to look at what they are getting for their dollar. Some growers are paying by the frame and we have lost some of our bee suppliers to these growers. Other growers have compared the bee activity on our (your) colonies with their own and, after determining it would be worth paying twice as much for 4 times the bee activity, have called our suppliers to offer them a better deal.

Disappearing Bees
Disappearing bees have been in the news lately. Bee scientists have called the phenomena Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD, yet there have been instances of collapsing (or disappearing) bees at irregular intervals over the past 100 years. In the opinion of some (including me) CCD this year was due mainly to malnourished bees.

Others make a good case that the new neonicotinoid pesticides (imidacloprid and a variety of trade names – Gaucho, Admire, et al) are the main cause of CCD (see www.lanesbees.com for this view). There is no question that U.S. honey bees are not nearly has healthy as they were 20 years ago, due mainly to multiple viruses transmitted by the varroa mite. Some have said that our bees have AIDS and that AIDS in bees is spread by varroa mites (akin to syringes spreading AIDS in humans). The cause of this year’s CCD may never be determined precisely. We do know that keeping strong colonies of healthy bees is more challenging than its ever been and will likely be even tougher in coming years.

Healthy Water
Bottled water has become a multi-billion $ industry. Growers with gypsum machines might be able to cash in on this craziness by supplying High-Calcium Water – For Your Health! Calcium has been shown to provide significant health benefits. People that live in areas with high-calcium tap water (hard water) have significantly less blood pressure problems and related problems than those that live in areas with low-calcium water (soft water gives hard arteries). Low-sodium well water to which calcium sulfate (gypsum) has been added is probably the healthiest water in the world.

Have a Good Year
Best wishes for a bountiful harvest and I hope to work with you again in 2008.

Joe Traynor, Mgr.

Addendum – From the Jan-Feb-March issue of American Honey Producer Magazine:

Early Pollination Update by Lyle Johnston, past president of AHPA

February 16, 2007
We just finished putting our bees in last week. Our group looks very nice and is probably better than anyone else in the Valley other than Joe Traynor’s group. There seems to be enough equipment in the orchards but many have no bees in them. Many criminals (beekeepers) have been caught trying to rob grower’s bank accounts with dead hives. I would have to say that of all the years I have been going to the almonds, the bees in California this year are the poorest I have ever seen. The shortage of good bees is far worse than what I had predicted last August. I would testify in court that no more than1/3 of the bees currently in the state would grade 8 frame level with one third 4-6 frame and 1/3 lower than 4 frame! Many “criminals” tried to restock their dead hives with Australian packages or they used them as boosters on weak hive. I think the number will exceed more than 100,000 Australian packages installed this year, up from 65,000 last year. If it had not been for the package scam the growers would have been short over 200,000 hives this year!