(Joe Traynor, American Bee Journal, July, 2014)

It’s July 1 st – Do you have your 2015 almond contracts lined up?

Over the past 2 decades, almond pollination income has surpassed honey income for virtually all commercial beekeepers and most will tell you they couldn’t survive without it. In spite of this dependence on almond pollination, the cavalier attitude of some beekeepers about securing almond pollination contracts in a timely manner is surprising. This attitude is fueled by stories of occasional super-high rental fees paid by desperate almond growers in years when there is a shortage of bee colonies for almonds. 2013 was such a year, and it caused some beekeepers to relax about lining up 2014 almond contracts, figuring the longer they waited, the better the price -- the example of beekeepers that got top-dollar for colonies of marginal strength in 2013 did not go unnoticed in the beekeeping community. As a result of what some called “the great bee shortage for 2013 almonds” beekeepers held back on committing their bees for 2014 almond, figuring the longer they delayed, the better price they would receive. Unfortunately, every beekeeper in the U.S. got wind of the record prices for 2013 bees, and beekeepers came out of the woodwork to cash in on 2014 almond pollination, with many hauling their bees to California, stockpiling them there during November-December, then waiting for the offers to come pouring in. When the anticipated record offers didn’t materialize, some beekeepers, aware they were holding a perishable commodity whose value would be worthless after almond bloom, panicked and started cutting prices, feeling that a low price was better than no price.

In the final analysis, almost all almond bees got placed in 2014, although some at prices well below expectations. Growers, burned by exorbitant late-season prices in 2013, felt no compunction about offering low-ball prices in 2014 to those beekeepers that hadn’t secured an almond home for their bees. To their great credit, Paramount Farming did not employ such tactics, but instead offered beekeepers with a surplus of uncommitted strong colonies a home at the same price they paid all their bee suppliers – because they rent over 90,000 bee colonies, Paramount was able to spread these surplus colonies over their entire acreage and still not go over budget on bees. Paramount’s actions (credit Dr. Gordon Wardell here) bailed out a number of beekeepers and lent badly-needed stability to 2014 rental fees – their actions should be acknowledged by the beekeeping community. Some bee brokers also held the line on price, figuring once a price is set, it doesn’t change, no matter the circumstances – a philosophy that leads to mutual respect between parties and that also creates stability in almond bee-rental prices for both growers and beekeepers.

How about the supply-demand situation for 2015 almond bee-rentals? In spite of the horror stories you’ve read about California’s drought, and of almond orchards being removed wholesale due to lack of water, the outlook for 2015 almond rental fees is surprisingly good. First, the word about the surplus of 2014 almond bees has gotten around, and beekeepers will be loathe to stockpile bees in California without a secure almond contract, as some did this year. Bearing almond acreage is expected to increase to 860,000 (vs. 810,000 acres in 2014) due to new plantings in the past 3 years. How many acres will be removed due to drought is unknown at this time, but even the removal of significant acreage should still leave total bearing almond acreage at or well above what it is this year – around 810,000 acres.

The wild card for 2015 is, as you might guess, the availability of sufficient water for almond orchards. This year showcased the ingenuity of almond farmers in securing water to bring the 2014 crop home. Growers in water-short areas, made deals with growers in better areas to purchase water at prices up to $2000/acre foot (there are 326,000 gallons per acre foot of water and an almond orchard requires 3 to 4 acre feet per acre annually to produce a normal crop). Almond farming is not sustainable long-term with water costs above $1200/acre foot, so look for growers that can’t line up reasonably priced water for 2015 to remove orchards after the 2014 harvest. Right now, it is more profitable for some California farmers to sell their water on the open market than to farm. It might take several months for an almond grower to secure enough water for this 2015 crop, but, for most, the decision whether to continue with almonds in 2015 or to pull the orchard after 2014 harvest must be made prior to the 2014 harvest because the most important irrigation for almonds is the post-harvest irrigation – lack of sufficient water at this time, when next-year’s flower buds are developing, will significantly depress next year’s crop. Orchards in their prime bearing years (6 to 12 years of age) are far less likely to be removed than orchards over 15 years old. Orchards that are pulled after the 2014 harvest will likely be re-planted in 2015 with the new trees consuming far less water – at least for 2 or 3 years -- than the older trees they are replacing

2015 bee rental prices will be about the same as 2014: $140-$160 for 6-frame colonies; $170 to $200 for 8 to 10-frame colonies. Most almond growers prefer paying a premium price for the stronger colonies, figuring they can get by with fewer colonies, thereby reducing per acre pollination costs. Three years ago, a Kern County almond grower cut back to ½ colony/acre on a 600 acre hardshell/softshell planting and has been very happy with his yields. Because of the additional feeding and management costs to provide 8-10 frame colonies, many beekeepers prefer to rent 6-frame bees at a reduced price, or to place 6-frame bees in almond orchards and hope they grow to 8+ frames by the time they are inspected by growers. Most growers either inspect the colonies they rent for strength, or hire an independent person to do so. Because almond bee colonies can gain 2 to 4 frames of bees from the start of bloom to petal fall, the time they are inspected can have a significant impact on a beekeeper’s bottom line.

By July, a beekeeper should have a good idea as to what it will cost him to supply bee colonies of the strength required by his almond grower. Securing almond agreements by no later than July is necessary in order to determine how much of your operating budget should be devoted to the supplemental feeding necessary to bring colonies up to contract strength. Progressive beekeepers are now adding $1/colony to their almond rental fees to go to bee research. At current pollination prices, a grower isn’t going to blink at an additional dollar for research and might even respect you for asking. After all, the almond industry has spent over a million dollars over the years to help solve bee problems. It’s past time for beekeepers to step up. Research donations can be made to your local or state organizations or directly to Project ApisM, a major sponsor of bee research.

There are several clouds on the almond pollination horizon: no one has provided a satisfactory answer (a smoking gun) as to why bee losses in almonds were greater this year than in past years. The addition of IGRs (Insect Growth Regulators) to fungicide sprays is a suspect, as are new formulations of adjuvants/spreaders (check out Mother Jones Eric Mussen for Dr. Mussen’s interesting take on the latter). Widespread alfalfa spraying with highly toxic materials at almond petal fall has been implicated in bee losses (bees expand their foraging range exponentially when almonds go out of bloom). Many fungicide sprays are applied to almond orchards after the flowers have been pollinated (when no almond pollen remains in the orchard) but before bees have been released by growers. Almond flowers secrete nectar after they are pollinated and growers are understandably reluctant to release bees when they see bees collecting nectar from flowers, or bees busily circling flowers searching for pollen that is no longer there. Educating growers to the fact that when no pollen remains in an orchard, bees are not necessary has always been and will continue to be a difficult task. At current record prices for almonds, many growers feel fungicide applications are cheap insurance and many petal-fall applications of fungicides are likely of little value. Most growers take care in the timing of fungicide sprays when there is significant almond pollen in the orchard but exert far less care after the bees have collected all the pollen. Because the cost of applying a fungicide can be greater than the cost of the material, the free-ride syndrome -- throwing an IGR in the tank mix – is popular with growers, and hazardous to beekeepers.

Another dry winter in 2014-2015 will be devastating to many almond operations. Problems with surface water deliveries to west-side almond orchards have been well documented, but east-side growers that depend on well water are faced with dropping water tables and expensive deepening of existing wells. California’s ground-water supply is finite, and there is talk about California implementing restrictions on ground-water pumping as other states have done. One almond grower made an intriguing proposal: declare the San Joaquin Valley a National Treasure and a vital Domestic Food Basket and require all coastal California cities to use desalinized water, thus freeing up more Sierra snowmelt for Valley agriculture. Building more storage reservoirs in California is an increasingly popular idea, but wet winters are required to fill those reservoirs and if you go back far enough you find that our current 3-year drought is minor blip compared to mega-droughts of past centuries.

At this time, an El Nino winter (above normal rainfall for California) is predicted for 2014-2015, but past El Nino predictions have fallen flat. As always, Mother Nature holds many of the cards for the upcoming year, for both almond growers and beekeepers, so be nice your Mother -- don’t pollute streams, soil and air – as Mother has endless ways to retaliate.

Call or visit your almond grower after September harvest this year to see if he’s made a decision on how many acres he will farm in 2015. Once a grower has decided to apply a post-harvest irrigation to his orchards, he is 90% committed to renting bees and farming almonds in 2015, so don’t hesitate to ask your grower if he will be watering his trees after harvest, or, check out his orchard in October to see if he did. And, as is true every year, don’t bring bees to California without a firm almond pollination commitment.