Growers scramble for limited bee supplies

Honeybees are in short supply for the almond pollination season now heading into full bloom.

“There are a lot of boxes in the orchards, but many have few bees,” says Joe Traynor, Bakersfield, Calif., whose business, Scientific Ag Co., is one of a handful of pollination brokers matching beekeepers with almond growers.

This year Traynor found himself in a situation similar to the winter of 2007-2008, when beekeepers experienced excessive winter losses and demand for bees exceeded supply. After depleting the reserves his beekeepers normally maintain, he stopped taking orders in early February, just ahead of the pollination season.

Blame colony collapse disease, Traynor says. Apparently caused by a combination of the Nosema ceranae fungus, the virus-spreading Varroa mite and inadequate nutrition, the disease seems to be worse with cooler temperatures. Most of the bees brought into California in November and December to pollinate the 2010 almond crop were from areas with cooler climates — North Dakota, Montana, and the Pacific Northwest. A cold December and January in California, in areas where many of the bees are stored, aggravated the situation.

Typically, beekeepers feed their colonies in September and October to increase numbers or hive strength in preparation for pollination. The stronger the colony, the more rent beekeepers can charge for their bees.

This past November and December, hives in the San Joaquin Valley had plenty of bees — generally around six frames per box, or about 12,000 bees in all.

However, winter losses this season, were extraordinarily high, Traynor says. Normally, when beekeepers check their hives in January, after intensive supplemental feeding in November and December, they expect to find bee numbers have increased to eight frames, or a total of about 16,000 bees per box.

Last month, though, they discovered that many of the colonies had dwindled to just two or three frames per box.

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