Strong honey prices will cut into the supply of honeybees to pollinate the 2003 California almond crop, according to a well-known Southern San Joaquin Valley almond consultant.

Joe Traynor of Scientific Ag, Bakersfield, Calif., estimates that 5,000 to 10,000 colonies that have been transported to California for the almond pollination season beginning in February will not be back due to high honey prices.

About a million bee colonies are used to pollinate the state's 500,000 almond crop each year.

It costs growers $40 to $60 per hive or $80 to $120 per acre for bee pollination. Without bees, almond trees produce only a minimal crop.

More important than the availability of hives will be the strength of the bee colonies that will be trucked into California, said Traynor.

“Dry conditions in most of the U.S. honey producing areas have resulted in poor honey crop nationwide, especially in the Western states,” Traynor said. “Colony condition is below par and it will be more difficult for beekeepers to come up with strong bee colonies for almond producers.

Toughest year

“We anticipate the toughest year ever in getting strong colonies for almonds,” he said.

Historically high honey prices ($1.50 per pound compared to 60 cents from a few years ago) have some beekeepers stripping their hives of honey that would normally stay on during the winter. These hives can contain 50 to 100 pounds of now high-value honey.

“These beekeepers are either killing their colonies off in colder climates or are sending them to Texas or other southern states where they can make honey in February,” explained Traynor.

“Some stripped colonies will come to California where they will have a harder time in the winter without the insulation and feed supplied by honey,” he said.

The result will be less aggressive pollination and a short crop in almond orchards pollinated with weak hives.

Beekeepers can invest money to strengthen hives, but they want more for their colonies. Traynor, who consults with 50 growers with a total of 20,000 acres of almonds, said almond producers are reluctant to pay extra to those beekeepers.

However, almond growers are coming off a good year with a record 980-million-pound crop and good prices. They have the money to invest in strong hives, if they are available.

Supplemental feeding

Research has shown that supplemental feeding of beehives can increase almond pollination by 49 percent, according to Traynor.

Conventional wisdom says a smaller crop follows a big crop like 2002. However, Traynor said weather often has more to do with crop size than the previous year's crop.

“The 2002 bloom period weather was just perfect. I have seen orchards come back with a good crop after a big year. If everything is perfect during pollination, the crop will not drop off that much,” he said.

“Colony strength trumps colony distribution every time…a strong colony covers a much greater area than a weak colony,” he said.

“Ideally colonies should be placed center roads of orchards, although this is not always possible,” he said. Colonies placed on the periphery of orchards are more susceptible to damage from pesticides applied to crops in the area.

Traynor also encourages almond producers not to be in a hurry to move colonies back in after dormant sprays. Last year there was significant pesticide losses of bees moving in hives three days after spraying.

“Give beekeepers a big enough window for bee moving so that bees can be delivered on time,” he said. “Check with adjacent orchards to verify they have finished spraying.”

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com