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California Honey Bees – A History of Malnutrition

By Joe Traynor

from December 2008 Pacific Nut Producer magazine

For adequate nutrition, honey bee colonies require ample amounts of both carbohydrates and protein. Honey provides the carbs, pollen the protein. In California’s Central Valley, flower sources dry up in September. Bees can usually store enough honey to make it through the winter (or beekeepers can feed sugar syrup, as many do) but there are no cheap substitutes for protein. (Bees in Southern California and in coastal areas fare better than do Valley bees).

Left on their own, Central Valley bees will enter fall suffering from malnutrition, and colony populations will dwindle through the winter – a colony with bees covering 12 frames in August will be a 3 or 4 frame colony in February. This is and has been the normal situation for years and in the 1960s, the California State Beekeepers Association set a realistic standard of 4 frames of bees (and a laying queen) for almond pollination. Almond pollination fees were $3 to $4/colony at that time and both growers and beekeepers were content – growers rented bees at bargain prices and beekeepers got access to an excellent pollen source that enabled them to get a jump on building colonies for spring and summer honey flows. Both the timing of almond bloom and the quality of almond pollen made a good fit for many California bee operations. Bees that were severely malnourished in January, recovered nicely by the time almond bloom was over and their low winter populations meant less syrup feeding to keep them alive. Benign neglect was the fall-winter management scheme for Valley bees. It worked quite well 40 to 50 years ago, and had the added advantage of allowing beekeepers to take extended vacations during December and January.

Almond growers paid little attention to colony strength in the 1950s and 1960s, but then a few growers started getting bees from Southern California (where bees had access to flowers in January) and growers noticed a big difference in bee activity; these “new” bees averaged 8 to 12 frames of bees, compared to 4 frames for Valley bees. Most almond acreage was north of Merced in the 1960s and growers wanting strong colonies from Southern California paid a premium price for the additional hauling costs. As almond growers began demanding stronger colonies, Valley beekeepers were forced into a supplemental feeding program, but many beekeepers preferred the way things used to be – a lower rental fee, but no feeding costs and a prolonged winter vacation.

In the 1960s, malnourished honey bees in the Central Valley survived the winter. Looking at individual bees in January, you wouldn’t observe anything alarming, but such bees were akin to the starving children occasionally pictured in third-world countries – their protein levels dropped to the point where had they been in a bee hospital they would be assigned to the intensive care unit and put on 24 hour watch. Almond pollen came along just in time to allow them to survive. Beekeepers suffered only 5 to 10% winter loss 40 years ago in spite of severe malnutrition in their bee colonies. With the recent advent of CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) it’s a whole new ball game.

CCD is believed to be caused by a multiple of pathogens: viruses, mites (mainly varroa, but also tracheal mites) and nosema ceranae (a relatively new, and more virulent fungus than the “old” nosema apis). Both varroa mites and nosema are pathogens themselves, but they also harbor and spread harmful viruses that can be just as devastating. Both varroa and nosema ceranae are new parasites to our honey bees and our bees have not had sufficient time to genetically build up defenses against them. In addition, varroa mites have a harmful effect on bees’ immune system, an immune system that is fragile to start with (some beekeepers equate CCD in bees to AIDS in humans, with varroa performing the equivalent function of hypodermic needles). Add all this up and US bees hit a tipping point last winter with 36% of colonies dying out and many more greatly weakened. Valley bees that weren’t given supplemental protein suffered 80 to 90% loss instead of the 5 to 10% loss 40 years ago (the only thing that saved the 2008 almond crop was the spectacularly good bloom and post-bloom weather).

Both beekeepers and researchers now believe that proper nutrition is one of the best defenses against CCD. Just like older people and malnourished individuals are more susceptible to disease, so malnourished bees are more likely to succumb to CCD. There has been an explosion of protein feed mixes in recent years, many of them sold commercially, with many beekeepers buying the ingredients and making their own custom feeds. Pollen is used to supplement protein feeds (and is sometimes used exclusively as a feed). All beekeepers, including Southern California beekeepers, that supply strong colonies for almonds are engaged in some type of supplemental protein feeding. Feeding programs are expensive however: bees can consume 1 lb of protein supplement a week for a period of several months, or 16 lbs over the fall-winter months. At up to $2/lb for a supplemental protein feed + the labor involved in applying the feed, beekeepers have a major management expense.

To be effective for Valley bees, a protein feed program must be started as early as August-September in order to get a hatch of young bees (that are more resistant to CCD) going into winter. Because of the expense involved and because beekeepers are always aware of competition (cheaper bees) for almond pollination contracts, many beekeepers hold off on supplemental feeding until it is too late to provide maximum benefit. Almond growers should be aware that if they want strong colonies in February, they should contract with their beekeeper up to a year in advance so that he can plan his supplemental feeding program. Beekeepers scatter to the four corners of the U.S. after almond bloom. Before your bee supplier takes off this year, have a good sit-down talk with him about the 2010 season. Don’t hesitate to ask him what type of feeding program he is on and perhaps even tell him you will share the cost of such a program or help finance a feeding program during the fall-winter months when beekeepers have little or no income.

”You are what you eat” applies to bees as well as people. Almond growers should make sure they are getting bees that have been on a healthy diet for an extended period of time.