Chico almond grower and beekeeper offers 2009 outlook

Have contracts in place, maintain good relations with growers, and hope for rain: that is the advice for 2009 to beekeepers from an authority on both California almonds and honey bees.

Dan Cummings, a grower and beekeeper in Chico and a former board member of the Almond Board of California (ABC), offered his analysis of this year’s almond pollination season during the board’s 36th Annual Almond Industry Conference in Modesto.

In sketching the issues, Cummings said almond prices, which peaked at $3 a pound in 2005, are headed downward, possibly to $1.50 or less for the 2008 crop, due to the industry’s rapid ascent in production to an estimated, record 1.5 billion pounds.

“This is a consequence of two things; increasing acreage and increasing yields. In 1994 there were 418,000 bearing acres, and today we are at 660,000,” he said.

At the same time, improved farming practices and a shift in acreage in the San Joaquin Valley combined to push up yields. In 1997 the average yield per acre was 1,720 pounds, but by 2008, the average was 2,260 pounds, for an increase of 32 percent over the 10-year period.

Instrumental in the gains, he added, were exceptional pollination conditions producing record crops in four of the past seven years.

But costs of farming inputs also shot up. CAN-17 and other fertilizers, when available, climbed steeply. Steel for well-casings, irrigation equipment, pesticides, and fuel rose. Costs for pollinating bees went to $150 per acre.

“And the most coveted of all inputs, water, became more difficult to find than a well driller,” he said, pointing to lowering water tables, shrinking reservoirs, and soaring population growth competing for water.

Against that backdrop, forecasts for 2009-2010 Central Valley Project South of Delta agricultural outflow allocations at 15 percent signal a dire situation, with more almond orchards being abandoned for scarcity of water.

In addition to the above, the almond industry still needs bees. Beekeepers, too, are faced with costs of production and fewer “homes” for their bees. Some have already reduced stocks of colonies. They continue to struggle with an array of diseases and pests.

“I know very well that beekeepers’ costs are also rising,” Cummings said. “It’s going to be a dicey spring. Have contracts in place, have an ongoing dialog with your almond growers, and hope for rainfall.”

New tools to combat colony collapse disorder and other honey bee diseases and pests are on the horizon, according to another conference speaker, Jerry Bromenshenk, a bee expert from the University of Montana, Missoula.

One of his projects is attempting to use honey bees to locate plastic landmines that elude metal detectors in former battlefields. The mines leak minute amounts of explosives that bees foraging around the mines carry back to their colonies. When mines are found and removed, the land can be returned to farming.

Taking cues from medicine dealing with viruses that attack humans, Bromenshenk and others visualize a need for an international center for disease control for bees.

Bee viruses vary from country to country. In the U.S., there are maybe 30, and Uruguay, for instance, has a half-dozen. “If we could find out what we have and they don’t have, and vice versa, we could start to sort through them all,” he said.

Another goal of the research is getting ag chemical manufacturers and regulators to work more closely with entomologists and beekeepers in learning whether compounds are harmful to bees.

“We hope to give you diagnostic tools and outreach that you’ve not had before. We now have the ability to look at diseases that we could not see before, and we think they are the ones that are causing the surprises,” Bromenshenk said.

He said many larger beekeeping operations are investing more “to keep their bees in good shape.” As a consequence, he added, growers also might be willing to pay a bit more for pollination services if they could be assured that the colonies were more healthy after being monitored by standard techniques rather than hearsay.

Until recently, Bromenshenk said, certain viruses in bees could not be detected, and as a result, if beekeepers could not see virus problems, they could not treat for them. Remedies that were proposed could not be validated.

Rapid and relatively inexpensive virus-screening methods used by the U.S. Army for bioterrorism projects, he said, are now available and are the equivalent of taking fingerprints.

Basically, these methods reveal viruses, known and otherwise, by the proteins generated by their genes. Pharmaceutical companies use them to find drugs and treatments to deal with human diseases. The tests could be used on colonies like humans take periodical physical examinations.

Also speaking on breakthroughs for dealing with honey bee diseases, particularly viruses, was Joseph DeRisi, a microbiologist at the University of California, San Francisco’s Mission Bay campus.

DeRisi, known for his research with malaria and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) disease in humans, spends most of his time searching for yet-unknown causes for human deaths. He also has been working on Nosema ceranae, a serious disease in honey bees.

He is one of the scientists who created “microarray” technology to rapidly detect SARS virus. They have developed the “ViroChip,” which has DNA from every known virus and is being regularly updated.

Among 15 known bee viruses, they have found the genetic codes for eight. While any one may not necessarily be the cause of a specific disease, it may be a “passenger,” so the researchers went to work to sort them out.

Detectors on the ViroChip reveal the human viruses present when a person simply sneezes on it. “We wanted to extend this chip technology to bees,” DeRisi said.

The result was the “BeeChip,” which detects some 2,000 viruses or various other potential pathogens that attack arthropods.

Armed with the BeeChip, GPS, and other technology, DeRisi and his team will be in the field, tracking designated colonies of a major beekeeping operations this year. The work is funded by “PAm,” or Project Apis m., the research unit funded by honey processors, beekeepers and orchardists.

They will gather baseline data on normal colonies, and when abnormalities arise, they will analyze liquefied bee-tissue samples from problem colonies with the BeeChip to learn the causes. Resulting data will be turned over to the ABC, which will use it to guide research into solutions.

“If a colony collapses, we will not only learn what happened during the collapse, but what is normal. This is the goal of the whole study: to know what was there before and to have the foundation data to use in interpreting the results,” DeRisi said.

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