(Joe Traynor – From March 15, 2008 GoodFruit Grower magazine)

Pacific Northwest apple pollination is inextricably linked with California almond pollination. Virtually every commercial beekeeper that supplies bees to PNW apple orchards also pollinates California almond orchards – I know of no exceptions.

The almond pollination season in any given year gives a reliable preview of what honey bee condition will be like for PNW apple growers. The condition of honey bees in CA almond orchards this year ranges from very poor to very good, as it does every year.

CCD problems (see sidebar) are making it increasingly difficult for beekeepers to supply strong, healthy colonies to almond growers. In spite of these problems, there are many strong, populous colonies in almond orchards at this time (mid-February). Almond bloom is late this year – about 10 days later than normal -- with full bloom not expected until around February 25th. This means a smaller gap between the end of almond bloom (about March 15 this year) and the start of apple bloom. This should still leave an ample window for timely bee deliveries to PNW apple orchards. The window for deliveries to soft fruit orchards in southern areas will be narrower but should still be adequate for beekeepers with reliable truckers.

You can follow CA almond bloom and bee activity at www.bluediamondgrowers.com (click on Growers Site, then In the Field/Bloom, then on the map which gives you bloom and bee data for each area of the state). How the bees fared in February and March will give you clues as to the condition of the bees you will be getting in April. If it rains throughout the bloom (hasn’t happened in 50 years) bee condition for apples will be sub-par. Bees usually come out of almond orchards in excellent condition – lots of bees and lots of bee brood that, when hatched, will add to colony populations when the hives are placed in apple orchards.

For most commercial beekeepers, almond pollination income is the Big (and sometimes the sole) pay day for the year. 2008 rental prices ranged from $150 to$180 per colony for eight-frame or better colonies; about triple the prices of five years ago. Although the money is good (and would have been unbelievable only a few years ago) beekeeper costs to supply 8-frame colonies in the middle of winter, especially with current CCD problems, take up a huge portion of that income (some figure as much as $125/colony).

Extremely high almond pollination fees have caused all almond growers to think inside the box – the box, in this case, being the hive, or wooden structure that houses the colony. Renting 8-frame colonies for $160 ea. is usually cheaper on a per acre basis than renting 4-frame colonies at a much lower price since fewer colonies are needed per acre. Many almond growers now hire independent inspectors to verify colony strength; some bee brokers provide this same service. There are few, if any, unsuspecting almond growers out there that a beekeeper might take advantage of; all growers are suspecting and all bee operations are suspect.

The general strength of bee colonies in almond orchards has improved in recent years because the bar for colony strength has been raised in synchrony with almond pollination rental fees. There are still, however, many colonies in almond orchards that do not meet the optimum 8-frame standard – there always has been and likely always will be. This is not a reflection on the competence of beekeepers, but more a measure of the difficulties that even good beekeepers are having in coming up with 8-frame colonies in February. Colony strength at the end of almond bloom is usually about 25% higher than at the beginning. An 8-frame colony can become a 10-frame colony and a 4-framer can turn into a 5-framer. This increase is a significant benefit to apple growers and one that did not exist 40 years ago.

With 8-frame colonies, 1 colony per acre is ample for apple growers – almond growers use 2 colonies/acre because they want a 50% set of blossoms (almonds are never thinned) while a commercial apple crop requires only a 5% set. If there is competing bloom within a mile of your orchard (in some cases 2 miles, if it is an attractive bloom) you may want to use more than 1 colony per acre. Because almonds bloom in the winter, there is little competing bloom unless an early-blooming peach or nectarine orchard is nearby. Further support that 1 (strong) honey bee colony is sufficient for apples comes from the USDA recommendation that 300 individual female Blue Orchard Bees (BOBs) are sufficient for orchard pollination. If 300 BOBs can pollinate an orchard, surely 7,000 worker bees from 1 strong honey bee colony can do the job, even considering that BOBs are more efficient pollinators than honey bees. For small or backyard orchards, BOBs should be considered; see www.knoxcellars.com A reputable BOB supplier, based in Bakersfield, CA, is supplying BOBs for commercial orchards, but their value has yet to be proven on large-scale operations; see www.almondpollinationcompany.com

The vetting process that almond bees go through, and the early start they get on spring buildup, has significantly increased the strength of honey bee colonies in PNW apple orchards over what it was before almond pollination became the major factor in the bee industry. Apple growers receive much stronger colonies today than they did 25 years ago. Apple growers should still pay close attention to colony strength since a beekeeper might split that 10-frame colony that comes out of almonds into two 5-frame colonies; and he might want to rent his cull colonies for apples – those that didn’t make the grade for almonds.

PNW apple growers today are getting stronger bee colonies than California almond growers and they are getting them at bargain prices -- $40 to $50 per colony. 30 years ago, virtually all PNW apple orchards were pollinated with PNW and Northern California bees. Today, thousands of bee colonies from Montana and N. Dakota are used because beekeepers from these states look at apple orchards as welcome holding locations until their home states thaw out. Before almonds, these bees would either be killed off in the winter or protected from freezing temperatures. MT and ND bees have exerted considerable downward pressure on PNW pollination prices, to the benefit of apple growers and the detriment of PNW beekeepers. In the 1950s CA beekeepers were receiving $2/colony for almond bees and WA beekeepers were getting $5/colony for apple bees. In the 60s, it was $5 and $10 respectively. In the 50s and 60s, CA beekeepers would look in awe at WA apple pollination fees and dream about getting $10/colony for almonds. PNW beekeepers knew little or nothing about almond pollination 40 or 50 years ago. What a difference today, and what a switch in pollination income for beekeepers!

The increase in California’s almond acreage from 100,000 acres to 600,000 acres today (and 750,000 acres a few years from now) has completely changed U.S. beekeeping. Honey production is no longer profitable for beekeepers due to cheap imported honey, mainly from China and Argentina. Some beekeepers even consider honey production a nuisance, other than the food value for their bees. Many beekeepers today are interested solely in keeping their colonies alive from one almond pollination season to the next – a formidable task with today’s problems. You can now purchase a honey bee colony in late March, after almond bloom, for $125; significantly less that what the almond grower pays for bee rental. Your problem then is: how do you keep the colony alive and healthy until the following February? Some beekeepers are considering killing off their colonies after almond bloom, taking most of the rest of the year off, then purchasing packages of bees from Australia (or the southeast U.S.) in Nov.-Dec, installing them in their equipment. and hoping the bees can increase sufficiently in strength to be rentable for almonds.

For most beekeepers, apple pollination income is only enough to defray the cost of keeping their bees alive for another month. Price-cutting by beekeepers to secure apple locations and pressure by apple growers to lower pollination fees, has made apple pollination unprofitable for some beekeepers. The 1.2 million colonies exiting almond orchards in March has put apple growers in the drivers seat when it comes to pollination fees. In California, apple pollination fees are as low as $10/colony, with some beekeepers placing truckload lots of bees near orchards at no charge. The California almond industry is, in essence, subsidizing the apple industry to the tune of millions of dollars saved annually in pollination fees. Be grateful. And consider making a donation to bee research. A fledgling, non-profit organization devoted to bee research, Project Apis M., is being supported by beekeepers and almond growers via donations of $1 per colony of bees rented. Consider contributing a dollar a colony to this organization for the bees you rent; see www.ProjectApism.org


CCD – Its here, and its real

If you haven’t heard or read about honey bee problems over the past year, you’ve been living in a cave. Colony Collapse Disorder is the all-encompassing title given to the myriad of problems facing honey bees and their keepers: viruses, varroa mites (virus spreaders as well as blood suckers), tracheal mites, a new strain of fungus (Nosema ceranae) in addition to a number of pests and diseases that have plagued bees for years, less bee pasture (due to recent droughts, urbanization and fields of corn, a poor bee plant, replacing clover and alfalfa fields).

Many beekeepers feel that the new neonicotinoid-imidicloprid insecticides (e.g., Admire) are a major factor in CCD. With these new materials, you don’t see the dead bees in front of hive entrances as happens with the organophosphates but beekeepers suspect that nectar and pollen are being contaminated leading to a slow but steady decline in bee populations. France banned imidicloprids several years ago after vociferous complaints from beekeepers, yet honey bees in France have not made a comeback, leading some to believe the imidicloprids should be exonerated, at least temporarily, from playing a part in CCD.

A consensus if forming that a virus, or a combination of viruses is behind CCD. Bees (and humans) have been challenged by viruses for eons. Slow spread of a virus allows a community to build up a resistance to the virus du jour. Varroa mites have short-circuited this natural process by rapidly transmitting viruses through a population. The mixing of bee colonies from many different areas in California almond orchards has undoubtedly contributed to the spread of viruses – one beekeeper refers to almond orchards as a “brothel”.

Nutrition is also involved in CCD. Just as a healthy regimen prevents us from succumbing to viruses, bee colonies that are supplied with supplemental, fortified feeds better withstand the ravages of CCD. There are still a lot of strong bee colonies out there. They are strong because their keepers have invested considerable time, money and effort to keep them that way. If you enjoy a good relationship with your bee supplier, value it during these difficult times for all beekeepers.