The only question left to answer about California’s disappointing 2005 almond crop is will the objective measurement report coming out in late June be higher or lower than the disappointing and devastating 850-million pound May subjective forecast.

Almond growers, handlers and marketers say the May report is 150 million pounds lower than market demand. It could very well go lower since post-bloom weather has been poor and only exasperated poor bloom set.

The subjective forecast was based on a telephone survey conducted April 21 to May 4, after which several powerful Pacific storms rolled through the state. There are reports of Phytophera root rot killing trees and wind and hail damage from the storms.

The industry desperately wants a big, rebound crop in 2006 to hopefully take the sting from the disappointing 2005. However, there are a couple of factors that that could dash the hope of a massive 2006 crop to appease almond buyers who are in a state of shock from 2005 almond prices at $3 per pound or more.

Some almond buyers will be forced to scale back almond use and marketers are hoping that will be temporary. It will be temporary only if there is a massive crop in 2006.

The ’05 crop will not be harvested until this fall, and 2006 seems ages away. Weather and pollination season will have much to do with the ‘06 crop size, however, there are two factors stacking the deck against a crop large enough to bulge the almond market pipeline.

One is that there will not be that much more additional production coming from new bearing trees next season. There will be only about 15,000 more acres considered economically bearing in 2006. The huge increase in bearing acreage is still four or five years away.

Exasperating that is a "crisis" looming with availability and strength of bee colonies to pollinate not only the ’06 crops but the massive crops ahead when acreage is expected to peak at 800,000 acres in 2010.

Start of problems

Joe Traynor of Bakersfield, Calif., is one of the state’s leading bee pollination experts, says the high cost of bees and lower colony strength in 2005 is only the beginning of problems to come. He contracts with beekeepers and almond growers for pollination services through his company Scientific Ag.

Traynor, who recently reprinted his popular Almond Pollination Handbook, says last season when beekeepers were getting $100 or more per colony for almond pollination with no questions asked about colony strength was round one of the bee pollination crisis for California almond growers.

Bee colony numbers are going the opposite direction from almond acreage. Bee colonies have declined from 3 million in 1994 to 2.2 million last season due to huge losses from varroa mites and low honey prices.

Improved bee pollination has been one reason almond yields have been ratcheting up, according to Traynor.

"It is not so much bee activity as it is the planting of varieties that bloom together," he said.

"About 80 percent of California almond orchards are planted to mid-blooming varieties, with Nonpareil still the state's leading variety," notes Traynor. However, the percentage of Nonpareil has dropped to about 38 percent of total acreage compared to about 50 percent 20 years ago.

The most popular varieties planted with Nonpareil are Carmel, Monterey, Price and Fritz. A new variety; Avalon, shows some promise, and several other new varieties are being tried. The remaining 20 percent of the acreage is planted to late-blooming varieties, primarily Butte, Padre and Mission.

Traynor does not expect bee pollination prices to go down in 2006 because beekeepers continue to suffer colony die off rates of 20 to 80 across the country.

Built up resistance

Beekeepers thought they had the varroa mite licked with a pair of chemicals (fluvalinate and coumaphos) incorporated on strips. It gave long lasting control initially, but the mites built up a resistance to the two chemicals and there are no replacements yet. However, Traynor said there are several "promising" materials are being tested and there is hope that they will be available this year.

In the meantime, growers are looking at alternatives like Blue Orchard Bees. USDA recommends 300 nesting females per acre for almonds. Considering that an 8-frame honey bee colony will put out 4,000 workers, an almond grower should be able to get by with 1 strong colony per acre.

Last pollination season 3,000 3-pound package bees were imported from Australia and rented to almond growers at $100 per package. Growers that used these "Aussie bees" were, according to reports, very happy with them. Considering that a 3-pound package will cover 3 to 5 frames of bees at best and considering that a standard bee-colony with 8 frames of bees will outwork a 4 to 5 frame colony by 3 or more to 1, Traynor said there is a pool of 600,000 bee colonies in Canada that could come to California almonds, but current border restrictions are making the colonies unavailable.

"There is also an untapped pool of bees in the southeastern U.S. that won’t be available until the current draconian Red Imported Fire Ant regulations are revised," he said. Currently 1 ant on a load results in rejection.

"Most southeastern beekeepers would be happy to sign a Compliance Agreement allowing their colonies to be destroyed if RIFA were found at the almond orchard," said Traynor.

Some bee truckers are currently bypassing 24-hour border stations due to the current zero tolerance rules, added Traynor.

Cut bee needs

Some California growers have cut their bee needs in half by planting alternate blocks of mid and late-blooming varieties. Planting very-late blooming varieties should allow bees to be transferred from Nonpareil blocks to these plantings at minimal rental fees. Two varieties that should be considered are Ruby and Morley.

"Ruby-Morley plantings show great promise in solving the bee crisis. Other very-late bloomers should also be developed," said Traynor.

Some beekeepers last season "took advantage of the situation," splitting colonies 2 and 4 ways, adding a queen, and renting 2- to 4-frame colonies at record prices, explained Traynor.

"The word gouging was heard for the first time, and the word fit some beekeepers," added Traynor.

Traynor suggested a "logical solution to the current crisis is for almond growers to use fewer colonies per acre but to make sure the colonies they use have at least 8 frames of bees -- more frames per acre; less colonies per acre."

Regardless, the bee pollination challenge facing California’s almond industry is sure to equal the challenge of getting enough almonds to recover lost demand due to the lousy 2005 crop.

Almond Handbook

Joe Traynor’s Almond Pollination Handbook has been reprinted.

First issued in 1994, Traynor has added a two-page update to the new edition.

It can be ordered from Kovak Books, P.O. Box 1422, Bakersfield, CA 93302. It cost $10. That includes handling and shipping.

e-mail:hcline@primediabusiness.com