In terms of sheer numbers, California almond growers should have enough honey bees to pollinate their 800,000 acres of trees this year. But whether or not all of the bees are up to task remains to be seen.
So reports bee industry veteran, Joe Traynor, whose company, Scientific Ag Co., Bakersfield, Calif., provides pollination services.
“There are a lot of good beekeepers,” he says. “But, it’s not easy to produce strong colonies that do a good job of pollinating. Every year there’s a shortage of them for one reason or another.”
The biggest problem continues to be the parasitic varroa mite and the viruses it transmits. At the same time, the cost of controlling mites has risen, now that only one company supplies Amitraz, the main chemical used to control this pest.
In the past several years, the amount of bee forage in the Midwest has decreased as farmers there have replaced alfalfa, clover and other pollen- and nectar-producing crops with much more profitable corn and soybeans.
Bee forage issues
“Last season, most beekeepers in the Plains States had a good honey crop, mainly from clover and canola,” Traynor says. “But a late honey-flow prevented some from applying mite treatments in a timely manner. Here in California, drought has forced some beekeepers to seek summer pasture in other states, but the number of good locations is limited.”
Southern and coastal California beekeepers got a helping hand in December, when welcomed rains prompted a flush of numerous ground flowers. The food they provided foraging bees in the form of pollen reduced the need for beekeepers to put out expensive protein supplements for their colonies, he says.
“Strong colonies consume a lot of feed,” Traynor says. “To provide good hives to almond growers, beekeepers spend a lot of money on protein supplements.”
In January, his beekeepers went through their colonies, culling those that don’t make his company’s eight-frame standard.
“Sorting and grading bees is an onerous task for beekeepers,” Traynor explains. “Colony strength in a typical large bee yard of 400 colonies falls into a bell-shaped distribution — maybe one-third at eight frames, one-third below that and another third above it. We’ll accept an occasional six-frame colony, since that colony could have lost bees between the time the beekeeper inspected it and the time we looked at it in a grower’s orchard. But, we don’t like to see colonies with just two to four frames. They don’t have enough field workers to provide good pollination.”
Traynor expects almond growers will be paying about the same this year to rent hives as last year — around $200 for a colony of eight to 10 frames and about $165 for a six-frame colony.
He looks for bee prices to rise in the future. Almond growers represent by far, the largest single market for bees. In Washington, the largest apple-producing state, no more than about 60,000 acres of commercial orchards require bees for pollination. And, that compares to just about 20,000 acres to 30,000 acres of cherries that are pollinated by bee colonies in California, Michigan, Oregon and Washington.
In contrast to renting their hives to fruit growers, beekeepers typically receive no payment when they place colonies in Midwestern alfalfa fields. In some, cases, Traynor reports, beekeepers pay farmers to use their fields.
“Beekeepers have to build up large numbers of colonies to meet the need for the two-to-three-week almond pollination period,” he says. “Then, they struggle to keep their bees going the rest of the year. At one time or another, every colony of bees used to pollinate other commercial crops has probably been in an almond orchard.”
Pollination fees drop significantly following almond bloom. Typically, growers of apples, cherries and summer crops pay rentals of about $50 per colony, Traynor reports.
“With 1.5 million bee colonies in almond orchards in March, the competition among beekeepers to pollinate the much lower acreage of other crops is intense,” he says. “In essence, almond growers are subsidizing growers of other crops requiring bees. The large almond bee supply puts growers of other crops in the driver’s seat when it comes to negotiating pollination prices with beekeepers.”