2009 Pollination Prices
Our 2010 bee rental prices for almonds are $10/colony lower than in 2009 (see enclosed price schedule). This is the first time we have lowered prices since we have been in business.
The Great Bee Glut of 2009(! or ?)
When February rolled around this year there appeared to be plenty of bees around and as the month progressed, growers were offered bees at bargain prices, some as low as $100. The combination of more bees (due to less loss) and less demand (due to acreage reduction and growers cutting back on colonies/acre) left some beekeepers out in the cold. In recent years, beekeepers weren't concerned about committing to almond growers until December since the demand and rental price usually increased during the winter months; by waiting until the last minute to commit their bees, beekeepers not only got a higher price, but less scrutiny by growers on colony strength.

The "waiting game" played by many beekeepers backfired this past season. Beekeepers without a written agreement found themselves hammered by growers on both price and colony strength. As happens every year, many, many bee colonies of sub-standard strength (less than 8 frames) are rented to almond growers. Beekeepers with such colonies this year found few growers that would accept such colonies. Those that did, had them inspected and either told the beekeeper to remove the bees or make a drastic reduction in price.

Beekeepers that had coasted in past years finally got the message: if you want to get top-dollar for your bees, you better make sure you provide strong colonies.

All the strong colonies of bees got placed in almonds this year; colonies that didn't get placed were invariably of sub-par strength. These beekeepers now have to make a decision: do I want to invest the time in money to provide strong colonies or should I stay home in 2010?
Providing Strong Colonies - What it Takes
Providing strong colonies for almonds requires close attention to 3 management entities:

1. Control of varroa mites
2. Control of nosema fungus
3. Supplemental fall-winter feeding

Most beekeepers have a good handle on the first 2 items; they have to in order to stay in business. It is in the 3rd item that many fall down. Colonies will survive the winter without supplemental feeding but they won't be of 8-frame strength for almonds.

A recent study gave $178/colony as the average annual hive maintenance cost. Add $30 to $40 per colony if extra supplemental feeding is needed and beekeepers will think a long time before spending money on such a program. Many feel they will be underbid on an almond pollination contract by a beekeeper that doesn't invest in supplemental feeding. Beekeepers providing strong almond colonies are also faced with a feeding bill after almond bloom until the next natural nectar source (usually citrus) comes on.
2010 Bee Supply
2 scenarios:
1, Because honey prices remain good, many beekeepers, especially those that got shut out of almonds this year,
will stay home rather than bring their bees to almonds. A short bee supply will drive up prices.

2. Beekeepers that got shut out of almonds this year will make strenuous efforts to get their bees placed in 2010.
The bee supply will be ample and prices will drop.

I have no idea which scenario will transpire. I do believe that most beekeepers will make every effort to get almond commitments early and not play the "waiting game" as many have in the past.
Enforcing our Standards
As you are aware, we inspect your colonies as soon as possible after they hit the ground, often on the day of delivery. We do this so we can make up any shortfall in ample time so that you get your full complement of strong colonies at bloom time. Also, to protect ourselves (and you) from a beekeeper's claiming "they were good when I put them in" should we delay inspecting colonies in a timely manner.

Some beekeepers have called us "ruthless" when it comes to inspecting colonies, and many refuse to work with us because of our rigid quality controls. The main limitation on our service is not in securing growers but in securing beekeepers. Most beekeepers call us "tough, but fair" and we are proud of the contingent of beekeepers that work with us. They are among the best out there.

In all the years we have been in business we have never been sued by a beekeeper based on our inspections (we have been threatened with suits on several occasions).

This year, one of our former growers secured his own bees, was unhappy with them, and got replacement bees. The first beekeeper got his colonies inspected on his own and is now suing the grower. The dispute will likely wind up in court with the lawyers on both sides the only winners.
Timing of Inspections
Some growers, encouraged by their beekeepers, delay colony-strength inspections until full bloom or petal fall. Colonies will increase in strength by 20% (by 2 to 4 frames) from the start of bloom to the end of bloom. The natural feeding supplied by almond pollen triggers this increase in colony strength.

You will notice on the accompanying price schedule that we have 2 prices for 8-frame colonies, one for 8-frames at the start of bloom (the colonies you have been getting and will continue to get) and for 8-frame colonies at the end of bloom (same price as for 6-frame bees at the start of bloom).
Cutting Costs
With low almond prices, growers are looking to cut production costs any way they can and bee rental costs stick out like a sore thumb. Attempting to cut that thumb by cutting rental prices could result in blood being spilled on your final tally sheet in the form of red ink from disappointing yields (sorry, that metaphor started with good intentions, but wound up in the ditch). Putting paramount importance on price per colony might win you bragging rights at the local coffee shop but that victory could be a hollow one when crop yields are tallied.

Beekeepers are a savvy bunch. Put downward pressure on prices and their response is foretold: they will cut back on supplemental fall-winter feeding and hope that the bees will meet the contract standard. When you have looked at your bees with us, you have noticed that they almost always run 10 to 12+ frames rather than the 8 frames in our agreement. We keep our agreement at 8 frames in case of unforeseen problems in a given year, but even in this age of CCD we still deliver bees in excess of 8 frames.

My philosophy is a simple one and is modeled on one that has been used by other successful businesses: deliver more than you promise and you will always have a satisfied customer. Unlike many other bee suppliers, we don't aim to barely meet our contract standard, we aim to exceed that standard by as much as possible.
Colonies per acre
As we have preached for years, if you want to cut pollination costs, cut back on colonies/acre not on cost/colony.

Consider the original U.C. recommendation for almonds in 1947 (Circular 103):

In general, one hive per acre is ample, even in adverse seasons.

In 1947, all the bee colonies supplied to almond growers were Central Valley colonies that had wintered in the Valley. Colony strength averaged around 4 frames of bees (U.C. did not mention colony strength in 1947).

You will note on the enclosed price schedule that 1.5 colonies/acre are recommended for full-grown almond trees if 8-frame colonies (at the start of bloom) are used and that there are 2 instances where you can get by with 1 colony/acre:
where you have alternate, adjacent softshell/hardshell blocks and if you have a hardshell block that is within a mile of a large acreage of softshell blocks.

Growers that have followed these recommendations have consistently good yields.
How Low can you Go?
What's the lowest number of colonies per acre you can get by with?

How about zero?

This past season we didn't put any bees on a 160 acre block of almonds that was half a mile away from the nearest almonds (the furthest point in the orchard was a mile away). The grower had stocked this block with Blue Orchard Bees and didn't want honey bees on it. The BOBs failed to emerge satisfactorily so virtually all the pollination on this block was done by our honey bees from block one-half to one mile away.

At present, this "isolated" orchard looks to have an excellent crop - as good as the crop on the distant blocks. The grower said he would provide us with yield data after harvest.
Aaron Merz
Most young people go to college to increase their earning power. 20 years ago, a law degree was the best ticket. With the boom years of the 90s, many opted for the financial sector. I was therefore surprised when I read in the local paper that Aaron Merz from Wasco was joining the Peace Corps for a tour in Zambia, Africa.

Aaron made a name for himself as an outstanding offensive tackle for the Cal Bears. After graduation, Aaron spent 2 seasons with the NFL Buffalo Bills until a shoulder injury ended his football career. Armed with a degree from U.C., Berkeley, Aaron could have embarked on another successful career but instead opted for service. Its refreshing to see a young person follow his heart rather than chase the almighty dollar. Volunteers like Aaron can do more to cement relations with other countries than highly paid diplomats in our State Department.

Who'd have thought that a farm boy from Wasco would be teaching a lesson in values to the suits back east (and the dandys in Newport Beach)?
Book Recommendations (3)
West of the West by Mark Arax. A compilation of essays on California, many based in the
San Joaquin Valley. Gritty writing; informed stories. Arax is a literate Huell Howser.

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen. The story of how one individual, armed with a vision
and perseverance can make a difference in the world.

And the Waters Turned to Blood by Rodney Barker. A biologist battles bureaucracies as she
searches for answers to troubling questions.
Research Contribution Summary
In 2008 we collected $1/colony from growers and matched that with a dollar of our own to provide $69,900 for research, distributed as follows:
Project ApisM $61,000 (for various projects)
Frank Eischen 3,400 (labor for USDA studies)
Randy Oliver 5,500 (to support his work)

We will be making similar contributions this year. For current and past research funded by Project ApisM,
see www.projectApisM.org
Neonicotinoid Pesticides
Neonicotinoid pesticides, including imidicloprid, have pretty much taken over the insecticide market. They are sold under an expanding array of names, Admire and Gaucho being among the main ones. These insecticides don't give an obvious kill of bees (as did the organophosphates and hydrocarbons) but many beekeepers feel they are a major cause of current bee problems. They feel that pollen contaminated with neonics (topically or systemically) causes sick bees (and larvae) when the pollen is consumed by larvae. Project ApisM is funding a study this summer that will hopefully shed some light on the subject, but don't expect definitive answers for a few years.
Declining Bee Pasture
Renowned Australian bee scientist Grahm Kleinschmidt had this to say 20+ years ago:

A viable beekeeping industry requires land management that promotes polleniferous flora. If the present
decline in available pollen resources continues, the effects of poor protein nutrition will make honey
production uneconomic. If this eventuates, the major national cost will be to agricultural production
which will be adversely affected by the inability of the beekeeping industry to service entomophilous crops.

Many U.S. beekeepers, and bee scientists, feel that this scenario has already taken place here, with increased urbanization, weed control and increased corn acreage all contributing to the problem.

Beekeepers continually move their bees, at considerable expense, from one flower source to another. Limited bee pasture is becoming overcrowded with bees (we're seeing this already on oranges in our valley) with resultant chronic nutritional deficiencies in honey bees.
Tough Times/Good Times
Tough Times are Tough and Good Times are Good. As one gets older (and yes, I'm closer to 60 than I am to 50) one realizes that there will always be recurring cycles of each. The current tough times for almond growers will eventually ease. The time for concern is when times are good - they can only get worse. Be joyful during tough times as they well get better.
Lincoln Speaks
During this bicentennial year of Lincoln's birth, a quote from the great man seems appropriate:

No other human occupation opens so wide a field for the profitable and
agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought as agriculture.
No other occupation is more agreeable than working with top-notch almond growers and top-notch beekeepers.
Joe Traynor, Mgr.