BEE CULTURE - February 2010

What Happens In California Almonds Affects Every Beekeeper , Everywhere

Joe Traynor

The first morning of the Almond Pollination Conference sponsored by the Almond Board was devoted to pollination and was well attended by several hundred almond growers and about 20 beekeepers (including several pollination brokers). Chris Heintz deserves kudos for lining up a stellar program that was educational and informative for all.

Glenn and Wes Card (Merrimack Valley Apiaries, Louisiana, Massachusetts) reprised their August Eastern Apicultural Society presentation and showed the inputs necessary to deliver eight+ frame bee colonies to California almond orchards. Their presentation and accompanying photos displaced the stereotype many in the almond industry have of beekeepers: that they are an aging population, still more focused on honey production and out of touch with the needs of almond growers. The Card's entire operation (20,000+ colonies) revolves around February almond pollination (as do many other U.S. bee operations).

Gloria deGrandi Hoffman (Tucson Bee Lab) unveiled her and co-workers (Ruben Alarcon, Robert Curry, et al) AMOPOL model This program is designed to allow growers to adjust bee inputs (colonies/acre; cost/colony) to orchard layout and weather conditions. It's an ambitious undertaking that will require more data inputs before becoming a reality, as Dr. deGrandi-Hoffman acknowledges: "When the bloomm equations are derived, we will obtain archived foraging activity and nut set data. Actual nut set will be compared with predictions to test their accuracy under a range of orchard and field conditions."

Dan Cummings, as a principal in both a large almond operation and a large bee operation (Olivarez Honey Bees) is, like the Hickey character in the O'Neil play "cursed to see all sides of an issue". Dan presented first-hand information about the significantly increased operating expenses on the part of both almond growers and beekeepers (particularly for nosema control and supplemental feeding on the part of beekeepers). Dan (and partners) also broker bees for other beekeepers/growers and said his 2010 bee rental prices will be $10/ colony less than in 2009, and that most almond pollination prices will also be lower by about $l0/colony. Dan has gradually been cutting back the colonies/acre on his almond orchards by tenths of a colony, with his most recent cut of two-tenths putting him at about 1.8 colonies/acre. Dan is from the Sacramento Valley that historically gets more inclement weather during bloom than the Southern San Joaquin Valley. Many other growers are cutting back on colonies/acre which is contributing to what is apparently an ample supply of bees at this time (we won't know for sure until about the time you are reading this). Dan acknowledged that water shortage problems, particularly on the west side of Fresno County, could have a significant impact on future almond acreage and that winter rainfall this season will be a significant factor.

Dan left enough time for Dennis vanEngelsdorp, at the forefront of CCD issues, to make comments on current bee colony condition. Dennis feels that relatively poor bee forage conditions in the east (Dennis is headquartered at Penn State, a leading bee research institute) and the midwest could well set up bees for a significant die-off this Winter, (Winter officially starts December 21st) one that surpasses that winter of 2007-2008 when colony losses totaled 36% nationwide. Dennis agrees with others that there is no one specific cause of CCD, that it is more like the AIDS in humans; that a weakened immune system sets bees up to succumb to any number of maladies (viruses, nosema and others) and that keeping bees in a good nutritional state helps ward off this AIDS-like problem.

Eric Mussen (like Dennis, not officially on the agenda) also made some good comments about coming up with eight-frame colonies for almonds. The standard for almond pollination in the 1960s and into the 70s was four frames of bees - about what an overwintered colony in the Central Valley would be in February. The standard was gradually ratcheted up to six frames (as bees from Southern California) and now everyone wants eight-frames of bees or better. Eric emphasized that coming up with eight-frame bees requires significantly more expense (especially supplemental feeding expense) on the part of beekeepers than in the "old days" - Eric estimated $200 to $220 to manage a colony for a year now. And, that if you invested that much in your bees and suffered a 50% winter loss, the expense would be $400/colony. Much of these added expenses involve supplemental Fall feeding. If this supplemental feeding is not done it will be extremely difficult to come up with eight-frame colonies in February.

The discussion was then opened up to questions from the audience addressed to Dan, Dennis and Eric, particularly in regard to the bee supply and pollination prices for 2010. Dan made the most trenchant comment here: "If pollination prices go up [due to a shortage of bees] boxes will come into the state, but boxes won't do you any good."

Joe Traynor is a pollination broker from Bakersfield, California, and a frequent contributor to these pages.