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California Dreaming vs California Reality: The Status of Almond Pollination – Part 2

California Dreamin’

 Part 2

Randy Oliver


First Published in ABJ in November 2006

The almond pollination market is dynamic, but I haven’t heard of much change since last month. It appears that beekeepers affected by drought and heat have taken their losses and readjusted their expected numbers of colonies. Many who hoped to make increase were not able to do so. A number of California beekeepers are reporting that their late-season splits are not building as well as expected. Most beekeepers appear to be waiting to commit until they can assess the mite situation in their colonies, and to see in what direction the market moves. The large players are talking to each other through the grapevine to get a feeling of what the supply is going to be, and the small players are waiting to take their cue from the “big boys.”

The honey market is like a volcano rumbling prior to eruption. The “new shipper loophole,” which allowed dumping of Chinese and Argentine honey on the U.S. market, has been closed. In addition, the price of honey in China has doubled, and Argentina is short. The U.S. Midwestern clover crop was fried by drought and heat. Out-of-state beekeepers, looking forward to an attractive price for next year’s honey crop, may be less inclined to take their bees to California.

Regarding the Aussie bees mentioned in the first installment of this article, I did not mean to imply that they were infested with Small Hive Beetle, only that the possibility existed. From all reports, they were great package bees.

A projection of the future beyond 2007

No one can predict the future, but I’ll bet that Global Warming and rising energy costs will be major factors. Global Warming will affect the California water supply (which is based upon the slowly melting Sierra snow pack), as well as bee forage across the country. Global Warming will also directly affect almond blooming due to the chilling requirements of the almond tree, and the effect of chilling and temperature on bloom and bloom synchronization between cultivars. Rising energy costs affect the price to truck bees, to irrigate, to make fertilizers and pesticides, and virtually everything else in the world economy.

We can do a little better at predicting the demand for bees. There are currently about 580,000 bearing acres of almond trees. That number will increase by about 30-40,000 acres every year for the next few years! The Almond Board is projecting that there will be 730,000 bearing acres by 2010—a 25% increase over today’s plantings. The Board projects that the 2010 acreage will require about 1.6 million colonies of bees. At present, there are about 2-2.4 million total colonies of bees in the U.S., many of which are not really available for California pollination.

However, at the same time that the extra acreage will be demanding more bees, the farm price for almond nuts may nosedive due to overproduction, and growers may be less willing to pay premium prices for pollination.

So what can the almond and beekeeping industries do to avert a train wreck?

The Almond Industry

The almond industry is already producing billion pound crops, and that number should nearly double in several years. The big question is: Can they increase demand for almonds to maintain the price? Luckily, the World loves almonds (the almond is the most eaten nut in the U.S.) and the Almond Board aggressively works to maintain market demand (Broken Link!)  (http://almondboard.files.cms-plus.com/PDFs/4785_ALM_5060_Almanac2006LR_FINAL.pdf). The Almond Board wisely also funds research to find health benefits for almonds. Researchers recently found that the nuts contain the antioxidants catechin, epicatechin and kaempferol, which are particularly important in fighting the cell damage that can lead to serious illnesses. One serving of the nut contains the same amount of the antioxidant flavenoid as an equivalent portion of broccoli. In addition to their high antioxidant content, many health experts extol the virtues of almonds as an effective means of lowering cholesterol. According to the Almond Board of California, around a handful of the nut reduces LDL cholesterol by 4.4% from baseline (www.foodnavigator.com/news/ng.asp?id=68795-almond-antioxidant-cholestrol).

In almonds we have a food product that is not only considered a confection, but also a nutritional powerhouse that is good for your heart. That’s a winning combination! It is possible that the industry may keep the wholesale price for nuts strong.

The 2005 crop sold completely, and the 2006 crop is expected to do as well. Blue Diamond Almonds states: “Going forward, this says to us that demand can and will keep up with supply. As such, we believe that consistent trading at price levels acceptable to almond buyers, almond sellers, and almond growers is a realistic goal for the industry in the year ahead and over the next few years as well.”

Almonds are such a hot commodity overseas, that close to $1.5 million worth of almonds in containers ready to be shipped have been stolen in California in the past year!

What the growers can do

First and foremost, STOP PLANTING TREES!

Establish long-term relationships with beekeepers—this stabilizes the industry.

Donate money for bee research. Growers have a better history of this than the beekeeping industry has. We beekeepers cry bloody murder if we’re asked to donate a penny toward research; the Almond Board will be spending nearly $145,000 for bee and pollination research in the current fiscal year alone—more than the entire bee industry did for all bee research at all levels!

Ease up demand by renting only as many colonies as you require. Mature orchards, or those on poor soils, with 1000 lb yields only require one strong colony per acre for good pollination; 2000 pound yielders require only one or two strong colonies; and prime, densely planted young orchards with 3000+ lb yields can get by with two to three strong colonies per acre.

Plant only 100 percent compatible varieties, and interplant trees for the most effective pollination. Research is proceeding on the development of self-fertile almonds, although these will still need bees to transfer pollen  (Broken Link!)(http://www.entomology.ucdavis.edu/faculty/mussen/11-12-96.pdf).

Offer the beekeeper price stability: John Miller says “California growers seeking stability are offering multi-year agreements to beeguys, because they know the tumult (hive health issues, and honey price issues) facing beeguys.”

Pay more for strong colonies to make it worthwhile for beekeepers to provide them. Last year a number of beekeepers with thousands of 10-frame strength colonies were not able to place them at all because growers were filling their orchards with cheap 4-frame colonies. Pollination-wise, a 12-frame colony will do the job of three or more 4-framers, so pay the beekeeper accordingly. Remember: boxes don’t pollinate trees, the bees inside do!

Plant early-late blocks adjacent to each other so the bees (on the roadway in between them) don’t have to be moved—in effect doubling the number of colonies available for pollination.

Make your orchards more attractive to beekeepers with good roads and easy drops.

Use pollen inserts to make honeybee pollination more efficient (http://www.firmanpollen.com/).

Supplement honeybee pollination with blue orchard bees (Broken Link!) (www.almondpollinationcompany.com). Blue orchard bees are superior pollinators on a per-bee basis, but the recommended 400 orchard bees/acre will still be outperformed by the 7000 foragers of an 8-frame honeybee colony.

There’s talk of opening up the Canadian border. Unfortunately, the almond orchards are a mixing pot for every bee disease, and chemical-resistant pest in the U.S. The Canadians don’t want those bees coming north after almond bloom. USDA Apis is not feeling pressure from the industry to open the border, and even if it did, it would be a lengthy process to change the regulations.

Open up the Mexican border. Bad idea! Mexico is fully Africanized. A few serious stinging incidents would be a disaster for the California agriculture/residential interface. In addition, the California queen rearing industry is in almond country—they don’t want African swarms adding drones to the genetic pool.

Put pressure on Paramount Citrus to drop their Clementine mandarin threat against beekeepers.

Start up your own colonies. Probably also a bad idea. It’ll cost you $200 for the woodware and bees for each colony, and without experience, it’s unlikely that many would survive until the next year. Let the beekeepers do what they’re good at, and you focus on keeping your return on investment up.

Support 4-H, FFA, and community college beekeeping programs to get new blood in the bee business. A plus would be that the “new guys” aren’t stuck in old ways, and may figure out new ways to make more bees available!

The beekeeping industry

We need to increase the profitability of beekeeping in order to double the supply of bees necessary for almond pollination. Profitability will depend upon Varroa and virus control, honey prices, and almond pollination prices. Varroa and virus control is a wild card, but we appear to be making progress with better bee breeding and management, and promising new products. Honey prices depend upon the vagaries of the weather, world trade, and tariffs and dumping. The price offered for almond pollination is up to the growers—although if it gets too high, it will no longer be cost effective for them to rent honeybees, and they will look at alternatives.

What beekeepers can do

First and foremost, EAT MORE ALMONDS! Tell your friends to do the same. It’s the least we can do, and besides, they taste great, and are really good for you!

Establish long-term relationships with growers or brokers—this stabilizes the industry

Hand this article to your growers. The more we understand each others’ issues, the better we can work to solve the problems. If beekeepers want to receive robust pollination fees, we need to educate the growers as to the added value of stronger colonies. I wrote this article not only for the beekeeper, but for the almond grower (indeed, much of this article was published last month in The Australian Nut Grower). Your growers can access this article at www.dadant.com.

First, let me be frank. It is virtually impossible to get beekeepers to work together to do anything. And asking beekeepers to donate money is a hard sell. That said, how about putting a $1/colony surcharge on your pollination rentals to be used for Varroa control and bee breeding research? At today’s pollination prices that extra dollar certainly won’t be a deal-breaker, especially if the grower knows it’s going to research that could increase the bee supply.

Increase the supply of bees. Lord knows we’re trying! But we need to get more young beekeepers started. Support 4-H and FFA programs, junior college classes, and sponsor and mentor the next generation of beekeepers. It will be a tough sell, though, until beekeeping is profitable.

Assume that pollination prices are going to be up for the foreseeable future and invest in your bees. “Beekeepers who invest in their hives, and the relationships with the growers will be able to charge commensurate fees.” John Miller

Use IPM (Integrated Pest Management) and proven colony health strategies—the “T” chemical is unlikely to be effective against the mite for many more years! The “M” chemical has tainted our combs to the point that colonies can no longer requeen themselves.

Monitor for mite levels so you don’t get caught by surprise. If you wait until you actually see mites on the bees, you’ve waited too long. Clean up your hives by mid August. If your overwintering bees were hammered by mites in the Fall, your colony will not recover well, and may crash in the almonds!

Don’t overextend yourself! It doesn’t do you any good to double your number of colonies if you can’t keep up with the hard work of keeping them strong and healthy.

Go into winter with strong, healthy brood nests. Make room if they are honeybound–don’t allow the brood nest to remain restricted. Dark bees especially won’t bounce back to a large overwintering population. Don’t consider pollination unless you go into winter with at least 8 frames of healthy, young bees (10 or more is better), and in late January there must be a few frames of sealed brood ready to emerge.

If you don’t have good late summer pollen and nectar flows, invest in feeding your bees so you enter winter with “fat” healthy colonies that will explode by February 10th. John Miller says, “Our view is that the most important bees to hatch all year are fall bees. We medicate, feed, and treat for mites in the fall, prior to dormancy in the cellar.”

Try to pair up an early-blooming orchard with a late-blooming one, and move your bees from one to the other (and get paid twice in the process).

Remember the February 10th date! Having strong colonies on that date is your primary goal all year long if you want to capitalize on almond pollination. Winter time is WAY too late to think about getting your bees ready for almonds; think August at the latest!

Advice to out of state beekeepers

If you’re considering California almond pollination, I will offer you a few tips:


Don’t over commit as to the number of strong colonies you will be able to provide.

Richard Adee says: “You gotta build trust with your growers. You gotta bring ’em good bees.”

If it’s your first time, tag along with experienced pollinator.

Don’t haul out weak colonies or empty boxes—it’s not worth the fuel cost! Combine weak colonies with mid-strength colonies in the Fall.

Cold, wet, foggy California winters can be rough on bees—have healthy colonies and be ready to feed.

Bees in large holding yards before bloom can beat each other up with robbing and disease spread.

Orchards that don’t have sandy soils can be impassible in wet weather.

Growers harvest almonds by sweeping them off of smooth orchard floors. Don’t tear them up with Bobcat loaders (use a “crazy wheel” on the rear).

Each time colonies are moved, a 2% queen loss can be expected – 4% for the in-out pollination move (http://www.beesource.com/pov/traynor/bboct1996.htm).

Nectar production in an almond blossom doesn’t happen until after pollination taken place. Strong colonies with big brood nests can starve if it rains for a few days. Bees can starve in large “scorched earth” orchards, heavily stocked with bees, with no flowering weeds. On the other hand, if the weather is warm, colonies can plug out so heavy that they’ll put you over weight for the trip home! Don’t count on extracting the honey—it tastes like bitter almonds. If the bees build up well, expect them to be ready to swarm by April Fool’s Day.

Locate your drops in daylight, in advance. It’s easy to get lost in the orchards in the dark!

Read Joe Traynor’s Almond Pollination Handbook (www.beesource.com/pov/traynor/handbook.htm), also current and back issues of Eric Mussen’s newsletters (http://entomology.ucdavis.edu/faculty/mussen/news.cfm).

Going to California almond pollination ain’t for sissies! Every possible thing with weather, transportation, the bloom, and colony condition can go wrong. Be prepared, do your homework, and do the math to see if it’s worthwhile.

Category: Almond Pollination