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Beekeeper Newsletter – March 15, 2011

2011 Season
In spite of cooler than normal bloom temperatures, at this time it looks like the bees completed the task they were hired to do — set a crop of almonds. There was a frost scare in late February when temperatures in some areas dipped to 27 degrees but damage appears to be minimal. Weather in the Sacramento Valley wasn’t as good as in the San Joaquin Valley which will depress yields in some areas of the Sacramento Valley. It doesn’t take long, with strong colonies for the bees to do their job and in most areas there were enough breaks between storms that they should have done so.

Unless we have told you differently, your bees have been released. When you have removed them from an orchard, please advise us so that we can notify the county that the bees are gone and that we don’t need pesticide notification for that site.

With the exception of three beekeepers, bee colony strength was very good. It is probably not a coincidence that each of these three beekeepers has only run bees commercially for less than 5 years. It probably takes 10+ years to get the equivalent of a high-school diploma in commercial beekeeping and the transition from hobbyist to commercial beekeeper can be rough. Going down the list of our 40+ beekeepers, almost all have been in business for 20+ years (counting former generations in the same family).

As happens every year, there were ample bee hives around, but a shortage of strong bee colonies. During December and January I fielded 50+ calls from beekeepers wanting to place bees but only one (1) call from a grower wanting bees. The grower wanted 200 colonies but I turned him down because I didn’t think we could come up with the requisite bees. We rented 4000+ more colonies this year than last, mainly to two former growers that dropped us a few years ago because their investors (aka bean counters) thought our prices were way too high. The ranch managers always liked our bees because we took them out so they could see first-hand what was in the boxes. The ranch managers convinced the investors that they could cut per-acre costs by using fewer colonies per acre of our (your) bees.

There are still a number of beekeepers out there that would dearly love to break into the almond pollination game but have not been able to. Many of these are former (or current) hobby or sideline beekeepers that put a pencil to what they could make from almond bee rentals and figured there was no way they could lose. They have no concept of how difficult it is to develop a strong bee colony in the middle of winter.

Several of our beekeepers came up short on their counts and notified us in January that they couldn’t make their commitment. The shortfall amounted to about 1200 colonies and we had to scramble for replacement bees. Based on strong recommendations from three of our beekeepers (thanks, Will, Jeff and Richard) we took on four new beekeepers and were happy with the product they delivered.

Complaints
The only grower complaint we received was from a grower that found swarms in his orchard after peak bloom. When we looked at the bees earlier with the grower, we told him he was getting the equivalent of two 8-frame colonies for the price of one and that some of the bees could wind up in his trees, which they did. He was only half-complaining about the swarms as his almond neighbors had driven by his bees earlier and told him “your bees must be on steroids.” The only downside to this complaint is that Gilly is going to want a bonus payment for his bees next year and may threaten to split them prior to almonds if he doesn’t get one.

United They Stand, Divided They Fall
It is a normal practice for beekeepers in Southern California (where we get about half our bees) to divide their colonies in the fall. With good forage conditions from October to January, these divides usually come up to 8-frame strength or better by almond time. This year, one of our So Cal beekeepers was late making his fall divides and a rainy December kept them from growing. As a result, his bees were well under 8 frames when he delivered them about a week prior to bloom. He should have told us this before bringing the bees, but he did tell me “just wait, Joe, you will be amazed! These hives will be fine when the trees bloom; you will see how they will grow!” Well, they grew some, but they were still gruesome at the start of bloom so we had to bring in replacement bees. This was the first time we worked with this beekeeper and the only reason we did was that Bill Mathewson looked at his bees in an almond orchard during the 2010 season and said they were “great bees; just the kind we want”. Unfortunately, neither Bill nor I anticipated that the beekeeper would split his colonies prior to almond bloom.

The Buckley Stops Here
Long-time bee broker, Alan Buckley, announced his retirement in a January 29th letter to his beekeepers and almond growers. I like Alan, and consider him a friend, but I have always felt that he set almond pollination prices too low. Alan places ads in the two almond publications every year giving low-ball prices which often turn out to be the same as prices set later by several large almond concerns. These price postings have served as a minor irritant to beekeepers for years.

Alan rents 8-frame average bees, but, significantly, the bees have to be 8-frames at full bloom, not, as we require, just prior to first bloom. Because a bee colony can gain 2 or 3 frames from first to bull bloom, full-bloom bee inspections are a tremendous advantage to the beekeeper. Some of you have asked us to delay inspections until full bloom, and our answer has always been the same, Sorry. The early bloom sets the most nuts and our growers want 8-frame bees at the start of bloom. It can take 2 weeks for trees to go from 1st to full bloom, but only a couple of days to go from full bloom to petal fall, and many growers renting cheaper bees don’t get around to inspecting them until petal fall. Our pre-bloom inspections allow us to make up for any sub-par colonies we may find. By full bloom, the game is over.

Alan started in the pollination game before I did and is now well into his eighties. Alan’s in top-notch shape and still skis expert ski slopes every year. I hope to keep on keeping on as long as Alan has done.

In his January letter, Alan predicted 2012 almond pollination prices with this parting shot: “My personal thinking is a price range for strong colonies (8-frame average) of $120 to $130, in the year 2012.”

We’ll miss you, Alan. Now we have to work on The Other Alan.

The China Syndrome
Getting a premium price for a quality product such as your bees takes work and we enjoy putting out the effort. China is a tough competitor for all things ag (including honey) and China would love to get in the almond business but climate and/or water issues prevent them from doing so (areas with the proper climate don’t have the water and those with water lack the climate). China put CA garlic growers out of business when they took over the garlic market, and put many WA apple growers out of business when they planted a million acres of apples. Garlic growers won’t recover because all garlic looks pretty much alike, but WA apple growers have staged a comeback by producing a quality product: tasty, blemish-free fruit with excellent storage life using improved varieties. Chinese apples now go mainly to the cider and by-product market due to the obvious superiority of fresh-market WA apples.

We will always have “Chinese beekeepers” offering less than stellar colonies at reduced prices. Like garlic, these colonies look the same from outside, but growers are becoming more aware of what’s inside the box.

The Every Other Year Syndrome
I, and others, have observed an interesting phenomenon: if a beekeeper has great bees one year, chances are the bees will have problems the following year; and, if they are in poor shape one year, it is likely that will be in good shape the following year. Two explanations have been offered: Beekeepers slack off on best management pesticides (BMPs) after a good year and intensify management after a bad year. Or, pests and diseases cycle into an every-other-year pattern. Forage conditions – alternate wet/dry years could also play a part. If your bees were in great shape this year, don’t let up on BMPs.

Notable Quotes
“Vigorous well nourished colonies are able to withstand bee diseases and parasites better than poorly nourished colonies.” BMP article in March issues of Bee Culture and ABJ.

“We believe that it is the moral responsibility of everyone who breeds bees to try to select for [varroa] resistance to reduce the impact of chemicals in hives.” John Kefus, March, Bee Culture.

“If we pull the plug on feed, I have found the hives start to shrink fairly quickly.” Dave Mendes, Jan-Feb ABF Newsletter.

And, like many of you, Dave Mendes has found it necessary to re-queen twice a year.

Good Information
Check out (tear out?) the 3+ pages of BMPs in the March issue of Bee Culture or ABJ. Check out Eric Mussen’s Jan/Feb Newsletter — lots of good stuff. And Randy Oliver’s latest on Remebee in the March ABJ. The quantity and quality of the information that Randy puts out is truly amazing — month after month of great material. I’ve been waiting for a couple of years for Randy to crash — to burn out — but it hasn’t happened yet.

Buy The Numbers
Proposed cuts for USDA Bee Labs:
several million dollars
Weekly costs for Afghanistan war:
$2 billion/week.

Drift
When bees are placed in ½ mile runs as they are in many almond orchards, you often see bees pile up (drift) to the hives on either end of the line; the end hives wind up with lots of bees at the expense of the hives in the center.

Similar drift occurs in alfalfa seed fields where bee runs are often a mile long, and hives at the end of a north-south run become covered with bees — the bees have no landmarks to distinguish their homes and go to the nearest hive (usually on the upwind end) on returning from a foraging trip. Alfalfa seed growers have semi-solved the problem by placing cotton trailers at intervals along bee runs — bees use these trailers as landmarks to find their correct homes.

Some beekeepers paint their hives various colors to reduce drift (also reduces theft since colored hives stand out). Bees can recognize both colors and shapes; color designs of different shapes can be painted (or stapled) on hive lids and these lids can be spotted from the air if hives are stolen (although the m.o. of some bee thieves is to take the frames from the hives and leave the shell-boxes and lids behind

We are advising almond growers with drift problems to put some kind of landmark next to some sets — perhaps a scarecrow. If you have seen drift problems in almonds, let us know the location of the orchard(s).

How Two-Buck Chuck and Cotton Prices Affect Almond Acreage (and beekeepers) The increase in almond acreage to an astounding 800,000 acres in 2011 has been driven by both the attractiveness of almonds as a viable ag venture and by the unattractiveness of alternate crops. Going down the list of crops that are suitable for our Central Valley, almonds stand out. Wine grape prices tanked in recent years due to an over-supply (wine grapes can be successfully grown in any country in the world and in any of our 50 states) and because Valley wine grapes are of poor quality compared to those grown in the Napa Valley and Washington –it takes cool summer nights to make a quality wine grape. Massive removal of Valley wine grape acreage took place over the past 10 years and much of this acreage was replanted to almonds.

Today’s wine industry has totally changed due to the convergence of two factors: $2/bottle wine + tough economic times. Consumers have discovered they can get a quality wine for $6/bottle and a darn good wine for $2.99. San Joaquin Valley grapes are the primary source for these cheaper wines (except for Kern County, where nights are excessively warm). Per acre yields here are far greater than in Napa and land costs are about 10% of those in the Napa Valley. Napa Valley growers are now hurting. There will always be a market for Napa Valley wines since many people can still afford them, esp. bank CEOs using bail-out $ (your tax dollars at work!). And, purchasers of high-end wines fulfill a need expressed by Kris Kristofferson in his song Everybody Has to Have Somebody to Look Down On, just as purchasers of $6/bottle wine can look down on those that pay $2.99/bottle.

San Joaquin Valley wines now sell for less than what one would pay for high-end bottled water. All this has put a damper on wine imports from Chile, Argentina, Australia and China. China would love to break into the U.S. wine market but when the cost of shipping bottles to the U.S. is factored in, they can’t make it pencil out — Gotcha China!

California’s cotton acreage will increase significantly in 2011 due to current high cotton prices, and, hopefully, more water for the Westside. Unlike wine grapes, cotton loves warm nights and thrives in the SJ Valley.

Land that might have been planted to almonds in 2011 will instead be planted to wine grapes and cotton. Pistachio acreage will increase due to high pistachio prices and because pistachio trees , unlike almonds, can survive a summer with little or no water, an important consideration in these uncertain water times.

A significant acreage has been planted to pomegranates in recent years, but the pomegranate bubble may well burst — unless honey is added to pomegranate juice to neutralize its tart taste.

Almonds are still an excellent crop for Valley growers, but look for acreage to level off, or even decrease if Westside growers remove orchard due to water uncertainties.

The Challenge
One of our beekeepers who dropped out a couple of years ago (possibly because he didn’t like our inspection program, although he never complained and never argued with our findings) has informed me that our 3-year no-compete clause expires in 2012 and that “I know your growers, Joe, and I’ll be going after them.” My response, which I hope I don’t come to regret: Bring it on!

Thanks!
Few things compare with the satisfaction of knowing you’ve done a good job. You doing a good job on your end allows us to do our job on this end.

A few years ago, when the media were first flooded with stories of collapsing bees, the investors backing a large ranch that we service, flew out here to make sure that their investment wasn’t in jeopardy from a lack of pollination. Bill and I suited them up and spent a couple of hours going through their bees — colony after colony of 12+ frame bees. These were Oakley bees (thanks, Jim, Ron and Henry) but they could have been from any one of you (or almost any one of you). When the investors got ready to leave, they looked puzzled, perhaps not knowing whether to believe their eyes, or what they were reading in the newspapers.

That was a good day. We have had many similar days since then (and before then). Thank you for making our days!

Joe Traynor