2006 Season
The supply-demand situation for almond bees this year was 180 degrees different from 2005. There was a surplus of bees this year vs. a shortage last year. In 2005 we received numerous calls from growers in January, desperate for bees, zero calls from beekeepers. This year we received numerous calls from beekeepers (3 to 5+ per day) desperate to place bees and only one call from a grower (who wound up getting cheap bees elsewhere).

Beekeeper Randy Oliver (Grass Valley, CA) summed up the situation in a letter sent to the ABJ (may appear in April issue):

This year all the press about shortages of bees for almonds created another "Gold Rush" of fortune seekers. Unfortunately, just as during the Gold Rush, many persons headed west without full knowledge of the situation. The $150 per colony price that was floated blinded normally conservative beekeepers with visions of dollar signs. This year, raw greed scrounged every movable bee box out from the backwoods of the country and there were suddenly too many beekeepers trying to milk the same cash cow. Out-of-state beekeepers flooded the market and the ruthless law of supply and demand kicked in. Once it was clear that there was a glut of bees, the beekeepers started dumping bees at bargain basement rates. The wild free market competition turned ugly. Local guys had long-term "handshake" contracts dropped. Out-of-staters couldn't rent their bees for enough to pay for the cost of hauling.

The bottom line is that if you're going to play the almond game, you're going to have to manage your bees specifically for almond pollination. My whole beekeeping year revolves around one date - February 10th. That's when bees go into almonds and are graded for strength a few days later. When they come out of almonds in March, all I'm thinking about is how to get them ready for next February! Honey, other pollination, sales of bees, etc., are all secondary. Not to say that you can't go home and make splits or honey, just always keep your eye on whether or not you're on track for February.

In California as I write this, there are huge yards of empty boxes that were from loads hauled out from the Midwest and combined into strong colonies to make the grade. The empty boxes speak for themselves -- no grower wants to rent an empty box!

This year's surplus bee supply caused growers to scrutinize colony strength more intensely than ever. Our 2 main fieldmen, Bill Mathewson and Neil Trent spent more time than ever visiting growers and opening hives to show growers what they were getting. If a weak colony (less than 5 frames) was found, the grower often wanted to look at more colonies. For one grower that rented "only" 144 colonies, we had to open every hive in his orchard after the first set showed 2 weak colonies (in a set of 12). At current pollination prices you can't fault growers for being picky.

A 27 degree frost caused scattered damage to almonds (5 to 10% in Kern county, more damage as you go north). Some areas in the Sacramento Valley got down to 22 degrees and suffered significant crop loss. Growers with significant frost damage that don't carry crop insurance could have trouble paying for 2007 bees. You can follow the current crop, and prices at the website www.bluediamondgrowers.com
Buyers all over the world access this site and news of frost damage caused a recent spike in almond prices (they had fallen below $2/lb from a high of close to $4/lb last fall).

The 2007 Season
There won't be a glut of bees in 2007 that we had this year because few beekeepers will chance playing the waiting game -- waiting for last-minute calls from growers that don't ask about price or colony strength. The "waiting game" worked in 2005 but failed miserably in 2006. In 2007, we could well turn back to a shortage of bees, like there was in 2005. We haven't decided on our 2007 prices, but are leaning toward increasing them. Your input on 2007 prices is appreciated -- let us know what you think.

Supplemental Feeding
Last year our best bees came from Southern California where abundant rainfall triggered early buildup. This year, most So. Calif. bees were sub-par. A notable exception was a So. Cal beekeeper that implemented an intensive pollen-patty feeding program starting in the fall with continued feedings in the fall and winter months. The beekeeper asked me not to mention his name (he said he'd spear me if I did) but he buys bulk pollen (50 gal drums), has it irradiated, and makes his own patties. In past years, beekeepers have complained that they couldn't afford a supplemental feeding program. At current pollination fees, and with intense scrutiny by growers of colony strength, maybe you can't afford not to.

Line up Your Fall Feeding Program Now

Patty Sources*
Norm Cary - (559)562-0300
Pat Heitkam - (530)865-9562
Global Patties - (866)948-6084
Mann Lake - (800)880-7694

Pollen sources*
Ernie Fuhr - (250)785-4606
Walt Dahmer - (780)963-4281
Cathy Zou - (909)820-6669
Stakich, Inc. - (248)642-7023

* make sure pollen is irradiated

3 beekeepers came up with very high Nosema counts in February; their colonies were sub-par and looked distressed. 2 excellent tracheal & nosema labs: Alan Butterfield, McFarland, CA (661)978-8290; Jan Dormaier, Hartline, WA

Here's an interesting quote from Eric Mussen's July-August 2003 newsletter:

"Solid brood patterns" don't mean that the brood underneath is all the same age. Some queens were getting only about 35% of their brood to emerge. Just on a lark, Jim [Bach] fed these bees fumagillin and the viability increased to 95%

Everyone's asking about this thymol product. For an excellent summary by Jerry Hayes, see the current (March) ABJ (p. 215). Jerry had concerns bout treatment during hot weather but under Florida conditions (around 95% humidity) treatment at 95 degrees was O.K. From his tests in Texas (humidity around 40%) Frank Eischen recommends cutting back the standard 50g treatment (every 2 weeks) to three 25g treatments every week in hot weather.

The Boys from Weslaco
Frank Eischen and crew spent another almond pollination season in Kern county, running numerous tests, including testing a promising new mite-control product and evaluating pollinating effectiveness (via pollen traps) of various colonies, including Australian packages. Look for the results later this year.

Mandarin Madness
Growers of Clementine mandarins are increasing the pressure on beekeepers to stay 2 miles away from their plantings. Beekeepers are being pushed out o long-held locations. A new U.C. variety Tango is seedless in the presence of bees and may resolve the situation if current orchards can be grafted over (and if Tango is accepted by both growers and consumers).

Western Apiculture Society Meeting
July 24-27, Buellton, CA (near Santa Barbara). Great program, great location! Mark your calendar.

Parting Shot
"If things don't seem out of control, you're not going fast enough." (Mario Andretti).