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Almond Grower Newsletter – Nov. 1, 2005

2006 Bee Supply
A number of people have asked me “what’s the bee supply for 2006?” My answer is, I’ll let you know in February. As for bee boxes (hives) there will be an ample supply at 2+ hives per acre. We won’t know what’s in those hives until February.

This past season opened my eyes to the fact that no individual beekeeper can tell you in October what his bee count will be in February. Winter loss due to varroa mite is the reason. Look at the following data:

Date of Mite Treatment

Frames of bees in December*

August 15
September 15
October 15

17+
9
2.5

*assume 2000 bees per frame; from August American Bee Journal, p.631.

As U.C. Extension Apiculturist, Eric Mussen, put it: “Without a good supply of winter bees, the colonies just continue to dwindle down to nothing.” May/June 2005 Newsletter.

Most beekeepers are (now) aware of the above, but few initiate mite treatments in August because the bees look so good and are making honey. Bee populations usually hold through October and all our beekeepers report good populations at this time. Probably less than 20% of U.S. beekeepers, however, apply a mite treatment in August, therefore there is a possibility (or probability) that bee numbers will crash again this winter. On top of this, mite control chemicals that worked last year are not working nearly as well (due to resistant mites). Everyone knew this would happen but everyone was sure a new chemical would be available by now. To date, now new chemical and no good indication that any will be available in 2006. BIG problems for beekeepers.

One thing that beekeepers have going for them this year is that bees are going into the fall in better condition nutritionally than last year due to better soil moisture in most areas. Last year there was drought in most bee areas resulting in below-normal bee forage.

A major benefit our growers enjoy is that we have 40+ beekeepers under contract. If the bees from any one supplier crash (and I fully expect this to happen as it did last year) we can make this up with another beekeeper. This gives you a tremendous advantage over growers that contract with one or a few individual beekeepers. We’re giving ourselves more of a cushion with our suppliers than last year so I hope we don’t have to cut back 10 to 20% on your bees as we did this year.

The combination of low honey prices and losses to mites has many beekeepers on the ropes. One of our best suppliers runs about 600 colonies (over the past 20 years we’ve never found 1 colony of his below 8-frame strength). He called me a few weeks ago and said “Joe, I can’t keep up. I’m stressed out and can’t do the job of keeping my bees up to par. I’m looking to sell 200 colonies this winter.” This surprised me as 1,000 colonies is considered the number that can be successfully handled by one beekeeper and this beekeeper is (still) 20 years younger than me (as many of you know, I’m closer to 60 than I am to 50). Many beekeepers, esp. those in the eastern U.S. are looking to sell out as they don’t want to put their livelihood on a truck and ship it to California.

Don’t look for increased bee numbers to handle the increasing almond acreage. The answer, in my opinion, is to use less colonies per acre. Look at the following table:

Almond Pollen Collected by Bees*

8-frame colony: 12.8 grams
4-frame colony: 1.8 grams

*American Bee Journal, February 1977

Which would you rather have: A. One 8-frame colony per acre or B. Three 4-frame colonies per acre. If your answer is B. you should probably get out of the almond business.

There were plenty of 4-frame colonies in almond orchards this year at 2+ colonies per acre, yet statewide yields held up. Did almond growers that used 3 colonies/acre as a hedge against poor weather get any better yields than our growers that used 1.5 colonies/acre. Not that I can tell.

Bargain Bees – Again!
Since we’ve been in business, our goal has been to supply a premium product (strong bee colonies) at a price above the market price. This year we were well below the market price. For 2006, I was determined not to let this happen again and was sure that doubling our price would put us back on track. Well, guess what? We’ll be below the going rate again. 30 to 40,000 bee colonies will be rented in Kern county for $150 per colony; the same is true for counties to the north.

Four of our better beekeepers are close to bankruptcy in good part because our colony strength inspection program gave them a good push in that direction — we rejected or downgraded their bees too late for them to obtain other contracts. We have a difficult time getting new beekeepers because they know we enforce colony strength standards and they know most almond growers don’t.

A Bee Surplus in 2006?
Having painted a gloomy picture of the current state of beekeeping, there could well be a surplus of bees in 2006. What?! (Hey, I have to cover myself in case this scenario occurs).

Beekeepers across the U.S. heard of The Great Bee Shortage of 2005 and of the hefty pollination fees paid by almond growers. With the honey market in the doldrums, almond pollination fees are the only salvation for many bee operations. Almond pollination represents The River of Life for many beekeepers and all beekeepers are struggling to get to the River. Some won’t make it. Those almond growers that look at beekeepers as a greedy bunch will be pleased if there turns out to be a surplus of bees in 2006. They can sit back and watch the beekeepers that didn’t make it to the River die a slow death.

Those beekeepers that have solid almond pollination contracts are faced with questions after almond bloom ends in March: Now what? Where do I go? How do I keep my bees alive until next almond bloom? There are no easy answers to these questions.

So, will there be a shortage of almond bees in 2006 or a surplus? I have no idea. It depends in good part on the extent of winter loss. Ask me again in February.

The Future
Look for almond pollination prices to hit $200 a colony in 2008 if not in 2007. Don’t look for an increase in colony numbers – - a decrease is more likely. Here are 3 suggestions:

1. Support bee industry efforts to restrict cheap imported honey, esp. from China.

2. Impose a limit of 1 bee colony per acre. This would force growers to get the maximum number of bees in that colony. Would statewide yields suffer? I don’t think so. They certainly wouldn’t drop in half and likely not more than 10%, if that, and maybe a 10% reduction in crop would be beneficial in future years.

3. Develop almond varieties that bloom in March (or chemicals that delay bloom until March). The almond industry has been asleep on this topic. The bee industry hopes they don’t wake up.

Theft – A Major Concern
We had no losses to theft this year. Many of you helped greatly in this regard by securing bee drives and by patrolling your orchards at night and we thank you for this.

The colonies we place are tempting targets for bee thieves (other beekeepers) because they know the strength of our colonies and that these colonies can be split 2, 3 or 4 ways. With the current problems facing beekeepers, they simply can’t withstand loss to theft.

Check to see if your insurance covers bee theft losses. Make arrangements to secure bee drives. Consider joining with your neighbors to hire a night-patrol security guard.

Happy Holidays
Hope you had a successful harvest and I wish you the best tidings for the Holiday Season and for a prosperous 2006.

Joe Traynor, Mgr.