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Almond Pollination – 2006 and Beyond

from November 2005 BEE CULTURE (pp.39,40)

by Joe Traynor

With the bee shortage of 2005 receding into the past, both almond growers and beekeepers are curious as to what the 2006 season will bring. 2006 pollination prices have doubled over 2005 and are in the $100 to $150 range (the highest prices for the strongest colonies). The two entities that drive the stock market, fear and greed, are also in play for almond pollination: fear (of going without bees) on the part of almond growers, and greed on the part of a few beekeepers who feel they are entitled to a $150 rental fee for substandard bee colonies. Beekeepers can also experience fear – of theft, of excessive winter losses, of growers not paying their almond pollination bills.

The driving force behind 2006 pollination prices is the unprecedented high prices for almonds – $3 to $4 a pound vs. $1/lb a few years ago. Growers don’t mind paying high prices for bees if they know they are dealing with a reputable supplier that delivers a quality product.

There will be only a modest in bearing almond acreage in 2006, perhaps 20,000 more acres than in 2005; the real crunch for bees will come in a few years when bearing almond acreage hits 730,000 acres (vs. 550,000 today). Growers are looking to lock in long-term relationships with bee suppliers and are actively courting beekeepers; beekeepers are in the heady position of being able to pick and choose among anxious suitors (a position that can lead to a temporary “Master of the Universe” syndrome if one is not careful). What happens when almond prices drop back to $1/lb, as many expect they will, is anybody’s guess.

If you’ve never brought bees to almonds before, you need to do some serious homework, just as the most successful pioneers that settled the early west were the ones that did sufficient homework before embarking on the trek. Good contacts are invaluable in this regard. Talk with beekeepers that have made the journey. Have a thorough knowledge of whom you’re dealing with, whether it be a broker, a grower or another beekeeper that is placing your bees. Know that the most desirable almond locations are taken first and your truck may wind up in a muddy orchard or be forced to spend a day or more scattering bees to 10 different orchards 10 miles apart. Know the specific orchard where you will be taking your bees. Dealing with good people can mean the difference between a happy or a dismal experience. If you’re dealing with strangers, ask for references and follow up on these references.

If you live outside of California, getting a reliable trucker is a key to being successful in almonds. Her again, it pays to do some diligent homework. Ask for recommendations from other beekeepers – you don’t want your trucker taking a 4 hour break in Las Vegas on a warm afternoon. Get someone experienced in hauling bees and line up trucks well ahead of time. Give your trucker exact pickup dates and make sure he meets those dates even if it means multiple phone calls.

If you’re from a southern state, make sure your equipment is free of Red Imported Fire Ants (RIFA) and arrange for an RIFA inspection certificate from your home state (current RIFA rules require an inspection certificate from the state of origin). Your load will also be thoroughly inspected at the CA border and if more than five ants are found (up from zero ants in 2005) your load will be turned back (an expensive one-time clean-up at the border and another go at crossing is an option). In order to pass border inspections, most beekeepers transfer bees to new or steam-cleaned pallets and pre-treat the ground in their holding yards with pesticides. Loads can also be rejected for weed seeds. Any debris of any kind on hives or pallets will trigger a meticulous inspection of your load at the border. Know the exact location where your bees will wind up in California (you will be asked this at the border). Make every effort to arrive in CA on a week day so that county inspectors are more available to check the load on arrival. For the latest RIFA (and small-hive-beetle) regulations, call (916)653-1440.

It is difficult for many beekeepers in eastern states to work up enthusiasm for almond pollination since most got into beekeeping for the life style and to make honey, not to put their livelihood on a truck and ship it to California (that crazy left coast). Some are looking to sell their bee operations rather than submit to a new life style.

There is long-term optimism for higher honey prices as developing countries, particularly China and India become more affluent and become major buyers of U.S. honey. If every person in China put a teaspoon of honey in their tea every day, U.S. beekeepers would be hard-pressed to meet the demand. With both India and China producing 10 times as many scientists as the U.S., it is likely that by 2040 China will surpass the U.S. as a world power, esp. if the anti-science bias of our current administration continues. South Korea (South Korea!) already surpasses the U.S. in cloning success. According to Dr. R.E. Smalley, Nobel Prize winning scientist from Rice University by 2010, 90 percent of all Ph.D. physical scientists and engineers in the world will be Asian living in Asia (Imprimis February 2005).

The best and brightest of our young people are looking to become lawyers rather than scientists (or beekeepers – and many beekeepers, whether they know it or not, are also scientists) because that is where the money is (and the accumulation of money is deemed to be a virtue in a capitalistic society). No other country comes remotely close to the U.S. in the number of lawyers per capita. Our bright young (and old) lawyers have a negative effect on the gross national product of our country. What a waste – and what a drag on the long-term prosperity of America.

But never mind. Looking at the world 30 years from now, U.S. beekeepers, although considered 2nd class citizens compared to the average Chinese, should fare well in the new world order. They should find a ready market in a prosperous China as millions of affluent Chinese peruse their (China-owned) Wall Street Journal while they sip their morning tea sweetened with premium U.S. honey. What a role reversal!

Getting back to almond pollination, the current situation offers new opportunities for individuals with beekeeping experience:

Supplying bulk bees – with 3 lbs of Aussie bees (+ queen) going for $100 an enterprising beekeeper in Alabama is offering 3# package bees (sans queen) for $45 to be delivered to CA just prior to almond bloom in order to boost up weak colonies. Why ship all that wood to California when you can just ship the bees?

California managers – Many out-of-state beekeepers would like to ship their bees to California but don’t want to go with them. They are looking for a reliable person in California to care for their bees in the winter (if they winter in California) and to deliver the bees to almond orchards at bloom time.

Winter location scouting – with winter holding yards in California becoming increasingly scarce, a California based person could develop a good business securing yards and renting them to out-of-state beekeepers.

Colony strength inspectors – High pollination fees are causing almond growers to look more closely at what they are getting. A person should do quite well in a short period of time by offering an independent inspection program to growers.

Will there be a shortage of bee colonies in 2006? It depends on how you define “bee colony.” There has been a shortage of strong bee colonies (defined as 8 or more frames of bees) each and every year since almonds were first planted in California 100 years ago; 2006 will be no different if two strong colonies per acre is the accepted standard. There will likely be the requisite number of bee boxes to cover CA’s 570,000 bearing acres in 2006 but the content of these boxes won’t be known until almond bloom commences in early February. If almond growers are satisfied with two 3# packages per acre as some were in 2005, we will see an influx of packages from Australia to make up any shortfalls. Florida bees will likely be used to cover any last-minute spot shortages as they were so used in 2005.

Whether there will be sufficient bees to pollinate 730,000 acres of almonds in 2010 is a question without an answer at this time. One solution would be to supply the same number of bees now being supplied but in fewer containers (boxes). One strong colony per acre will do the work of 3 or 4 weak colonies and should be sufficient. Two colonies per acre is the accepted standard for almonds and it is difficult to persuade growers to use less, no matter how strong the colonies are. If almond growers are satisfied with two 3# packages of Aussie bees, as some were in 2005, why wouldn’t they be happy with one 10-frame colony per acre?

The solution to the upcoming bee shortage will not come from the bee industry, but from developing March-blooming almond orchards so that bees can be transferred to these orchards when February bloom is completed. Genetic material is available for March-blooming almonds. Perhaps South Korea can be prevailed upon to use their cloning expertise to make March-blooming almonds a reality.