Bee Supply for Almonds

Your bee supply for almonds is assured for this coming season. We have talked with each of our 50+ bee suppliers in recent weeks to confirm the numbers they have committed to us.

Look for another shortage of bees this year due to 2 factors: 1. Parasitic bee mites are becoming resistant to the 2 chemicals used for control. 2. High honey prices have sent some mid-western beekeepers south (to Texas, Louisiana, et al.) to make honey. Also, 10 to 20 thousand So. California bee colonies were consumed by fires in October.

Several of our suppliers called us in December and told us they couldn't come up with the bees because of a number of problems, the main one being that they didn't think their colonies would meet our 8-frame standard (many U.S. beekeepers don't want to work with us because they know we enforce this standard). All U.S. beekeepers are having problems controlling mites and there are no new chemicals on the horizon. Anymore, coming up with 8-frame bees in February is a difficult task for the best of beekeepers. We lost some of our bee supply this year because beekeepers were offered 5 to 6 frame contracts for only a couple of dollars less. There is a world of difference in pollination activity between a 6 and an 8-frame colony and it can cost a beekeeper $10 to $15 per colony in extra feed expense to meet the 8-frame standard. Saving this $10-$15 by taking a few dollars less for weaker colonies makes economic sense to many beekeepers and it is difficult to fault them for making this choice.

At $1 .50/lb for honey (vs. 50¢ a few years ago) beekeepers that are going south can make more money than they can in almonds. These high honey prices should come down before the 2005 season but they will affect the bee supply for the 2004 season.

Each year in January we get a number of last minute calls from growers looking for bees. (Usually we're the last one they call because they know our prices are higher than average). In all cases, these growers are only concerned with getting bees - they don't ask about price or about colony strength. This year we started getting "last-minute calls" in early December. We've turned down orders for over 6,000 colonies from 3 different growers (with orchards located in Kern, Fresno and Madera counties).

As happens every year, some beekeepers that aren't returning to almonds haven't yet advised their almond customers. In a few cases beekeepers feel no obligation to advise growers that they are not returning because they have always been hammered by growers on price, with the grower playing one beekeeper off against another for the lowest possible price - not the wisest game to play with the current precarious bee supply.

Many of our bee suppliers have gotten tempting offers from growers for their bees but they have stayed with their committment to us because we have treated them fairly over the years. We have treated them fairly because you have treated us fairly.

A number of beekeepers haven't committed their colonies to almonds because they feel they can get top-dollar for sub-standard colonies in February, just as a number of beekeepers did in February of 2003. And the bee supply in southern states isn't totally lost to almonds this year. One of our Texas beekeepers got turned back at the AZ border in 2002 because 1 ant was found on his truck and he swore he'd never come back to almonds but that if he did, he'd bring his bees to me. I happened to see him at the Texas Beekeeper Assn. meeting in October and he somewhat sheepishly told me that he had taken a load of bees to the almonds in 2003 through another party that made him an offer he couldn't refuse: top dollar for a last-minute order for 3 to 5 frame colonies.

We anticipate that the shortage of bees for almonds in 2004 will be more acute than it has ever been (there has been a shortage of strong bee colonies for almonds every year for the past 20 years).

Bee Supply in Future Years
With bee colony numbers in the U.S. staying constant (not that many people want to get in the bee business) there is a real concern that there won't be enough bees to handle the increased almond acreage. There are 2 remedies:
1. Stop planting almonds 2. Cut down on the number of colonies per acre. Since it doesn't appear that new almond plantings will be curtailed, the focus should be on No. 2. By using only 8-frame or better bee colonies (by paying beekeepers more for the expense of providing such colonies) most almond growers should get by with only 1.5 cols./acre. Another key to using fewer colonies is to plant varieties that are 100% compatible with each other. The enclosed sheet - How to Cut Bee Costs in Half - expands on this. If you're contemplating a new almond planting (or you currently have Fritz planted with Nonpareil) read this sheet carefully.

Almond Research
Those of you that attended the annual December Almond Conference in Modesto are aware of the tremendous amount of solid, beneficial research done on almonds (including a number of bee projects). Almost all the studies were done by University of California personnel and you see Mario's name on a number of them.* It is also noteworthy how many times Paramount Farms is listed as a cooperator in U.C. tests. Cooperating on research plots requires a significant outlay in time and money for any farm operation. Paramount's cooperation has been a major benefit to all almond growers, especially those in the Southern San Joaquin Valley.

*Mario is, or course, Kern county farm advisor Mario Viveros - not to be confused with "Super Mario" familiar to your kids (and to Earl Surber). Mario is one of few individuals who is instantly recognized (at least in almond circles) by his first name - like "Tiger".

Priming the Pump
Budget cuts are affecting all state agencies including, and especially, ag extension. Some extension positions and programs are targeted for elimination. If you've benefitted from the informtion pumped out by ag extension, consider a donation to your county ag extension office or to the statewide office and consider writing your assemblyman on the need for a strong ag extension service.

USDA Bee Crew
Each year for the past several years, the USDA Bee Lab in Weslaco, Texas has sent out a crew, headed by Dr. Frank Eischen, to study bees and almonds. Since bees from all over the U.S. are concentrated in California almond orchards in February, these scientists are provided with an excellent opportunity to compare bee problems among bees from different areas of the U.S. with a minimum amount of travel time. Some of you have met (or will meet) Frank and his co-workers in your orchard; if they introduce themselves with "I'm from the Government and I'm here to help" you can believe them as they have been a big help in solving bee problems.

The USDA crew is also looking at fungicide-bee and fungicide-pollen effects. Dr. Tom Ferrari (Pollen Bank) has worked closely with them and has been of great assistance in their studies. Paramount Farms has also been a big help by giving the USDA crew access to their orchards and beekeepers. Last year, Frank's team tested a number of new chemicals to control bee mites and one looked extremely promising. Unfortunately, the chemical company, Novartis, doesn't want to pursue registration because they feel the market (solely beekeepers) is too limited.

Frank and his crew are here from pink-bud through petal fall. If you want to discuss bees or pollination (or football) you can catch them at the IHOP (Hwy 178 exit off 99) where they breakfast every morning at 6 AM.

Use Caution with Fungicide Sprays
Fungicide sprays can reduce pollen viability and can injure bee brood if the brood is fed fungicide contaminated pollen. The time during bloom when a lot of pollen is exposed is relatively short. Concentrate on pink bud, popcorn and petal fall sprays and avoid spraying during the period of maximum pollen shedding if at all possible.

A Boron Boost at Bloomntime
A boron spray at pink bud can increase nut set. Boron can be added to pink bud fungicide sprays (using Solubor at 1.5 to 2#/ac.) Boron applied at full bloom can reduce nut set.

CCPOA Rules our Valley
Why all the prisons up and down the Central Valley? The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. is the driving force behind many of these prisons. We all know of the big political donations made by special interest groups and the CCPOA makes some of the biggest. In 1998 CCPOA forked over $2 million to Gray Davis and another $3 million to various other candidates. According to a recent book, the prison guards

were the political muscle behind the 1994 "3 strikes" legislation and initiative, the act that mandated a sentence of 25 years to life for any 3rd degree felony conviction, even for crimes as minor as growing a marijuana plant on a windowsill or shoplifting a bottle of Ripple.

It was in 1994 when standardized testing of reading skills among California fourth-graders placed them last in the nation, below Mississippi, tied with only Louisiana. It was 1995 when, for the first time, California spent more on its prisons than on its two university systems, the ten campuses of the University of California and the twenty-four campuses of California State University.

Joan Didion, Where I was From

Trading schools for prisons does not seem wise, and could be self perpetuating, since it is mostly undereducated individuals that wind up in prison.

To his credit, Governor Schwarzneggar has refused to accept contributions from the CCPOA (although he received $53,000 last November from the non-union operator of a private prison in McFarland).

Sharing the Knowledge
Those of you that have been to my office have seen the rows of filing cabinets used to store information on a number of crops. Some, including my son, shake their heads and wonder why take up all that space when you can get everything you need off the internet. Well, I started accumulating this information before the "computer age" and old habits are hard to break. Also, it usually takes time to get the needed information from the internet. A recent internet site, has caused me to (almost) discard my Avocado file because pretty much every thing on avocados is readily available on this one site. The site was set up by Reuben Hofshi (Del Rey Avocado, Fallbrook, CA) who, at his own expense, has scanned hundreds of articles on all phases of avocado production. Plug in "pollination" and you'll find out how lucky almond growers are compared to avocado growers: avocados require 4 to 6 colonies per acre, different types of avocado flowers must synchronize to set and beekeepers don't like to pollinate avocados (avocado flowers provide skimpy rewards for bees).

Another internet site, was set up by hobbyist beekeeper Barry Birkey (Chicago, IL) and contains numerous articles on bees. Like Reuben, Barry has scanned a number of articles at his expense.

In this "Information Age" where "knowledge is power" and many are reluctant to share power, these sites represent a generous undertaking. There is no monetary gain in this for either Reuben or Barry. Their sole motivation is their sheer love of knowledge, and their desire to share this knowledge with others. Remarkable!

Of Pollen and Lint
I recently calculated the amount of pollen produced by an acre of almonds (5 lbs, an amount that is very close to the amount collected by beekeepers using pollen traps on their hives). Several people have asked me how I made this calculation. The problem is similar to one recently posed to Marilyn vos Savant - "How long would it take to collect enough belly-button lint to stuff a small pillow?" - and the calculations are relatively simple. An individual almond flower has been shown to produce roughly 1.1 milligrams of pollen; multiply this by an educated guess on the number of flowers per acre (2 million) and you get 5 lbs.*

*Unfortunately, navel-lint calculations are not as straight-forward because there are more variables. Using lint from my navel I calculated that it would take 27.5 years to fill a 1' x 1' pillow (2" thick at the center) but that it would take a mere 16 weeks to fill the same pillow with lint from Martin Hein's navel. The widely disparate answers do not reflect any innate difference in cleanliness between myself and Mr. Hein, but are due more to navel size & shape, to electrostatic charges and to several as yet undetermined factors.

Don't get Stung
When I attended the Texas Beekeeper Assn. meeting in October, the state apiarist told of 2 landowners that were being sued for bee sting incidents. With tractor drivers and others working near bees, there will always be someone stung each year during almond bloom. About 1% of the population is allergic to bees and will go into anaphylactic shock with only 1 sting. A shot of epinephrine (using an Epi-Pen, available by prescription) will quickly take a person out of shock but time is of the essence in getting the shot. Fire departments no longer carry Epi-Pens (liability concerns) so consider having your own Epi-Pen on hand to treat an allergic person or have the means to take them to Emergency fast (within 20 minutes).

If work must be done around bees, do it early in the morning. If a tractor driver knocks over a hive, please tell us right away; we can usually get someone out the same day to straighten it (exposed bees will die out in cold or rainy weather).

Bee Theft
We have provided our beekeepers with micro-chips (like those used for pets and to tag fish for migration studies). We will be stapling signs like the enclosed on the hives at your orchard. If you would post these signs at entry points to your ranch it would also help to deter theft. You can xerox the enclosed sign (add a protective cover) or we can provide you with more heavy-duty signs.

Last year, beekeepers experienced a rash of bee thefts just before and during almond bloom. Several beekeepers lost 200+ colonies at one whack. One of our beekeepers had 60 colonies taken from an almond orchard. We anticipate an increase in bee hive thefts this year. Thieves always turn out to be beekeepers, often one trying to fill an almond pollination order.

At some time in the future, all bee hives will contain a chip-like tracking device (as will all containers of ag chemicals).

Our Inspection Team
Many of you have met one or more of our crew that do our bee colony strength inspections. Bill Mathewson is a part-time beekeeper, Neil Trent and Geurt Lanphen are retired beekeepers, Steve Wernett is a full-time beekeeper and Anne Woodard is a hobby beekeeper. Bill, Neil, Geurt and Steve are from Southern California, Anne is from Bakersfield. All are good people, and all are very knowledgeable on bees and can answer any questions you might have.

We'll be in Touch
We'll be calling you later this month to schedule bee deliveries. It will help us if you find out if your neighbors have completed their dormant spray (or when they plan to complete it).

Have a Great Year
This is the first time I can remember when both almond growers and beekeepers are feeling pretty good due to high commodity prices and good yields (although the honey crop has not been all that great). It makes me wish I was just getting into this game rather than facing middle age (I'm closer to 50 than I am to 40). May the good times carry into 2004 and into the years ahead.

Joe Traynor, Mgr.

P.O. Box 2144
Bakersfield, CA 93303