To hasten inspections of out-of-state shipments of honeybees vital for pollination of the state’s almond crop in 2006, the California Department of Food and Agriculture has adopted a voluntary, pilot certification plan.

Revealed at a recent seminar by the Almond Board of California (ABC) at Modesto, the plan is a modification of the effort to exclude entry of bee colonies contaminated with red imported fire ants (RIFA) and noxious weeds at California border stations.

RIFA, a serious threat to humans, agriculture, structures, and landscaping, are a target of detection and eradication in the state.

Under the new pilot scheme, if shipments have certification from a regulatory official in the state of origin, they are subject to less stringent border and destination inspections.

Certified shipments must meet a tolerance of five or less RIFA to avoid rejection at the border. The certification also allows those found to be pest free to be delivered to their destination without waiting for clearance from the county agricultural commissioner.

The pilot plan will be evaluated, with input from almond growers and beekeepers, at the end of the 2006 pollination period for a decision on whether to continue it, terminate it, or make changes.

Inspected twice

Out-of-state shipments of colonies without certification are inspected twice, once in a cursory check at the border and later with a more detailed examination at their destination by county officials.

CDFA enforces a zero-tolerance policy of detaining or denying access to colonies when a single worker RIFA is found in a non-certified shipment. During 2004, of some 2,400 shipments into the state, about a fourth of them entering at Truckee, 30 were delayed or rejected at border stations.

While the number of rejects is relatively low, out-of-state beekeepers have been discouraged by the threat of bringing in shipments only to be turned away when a single ant is found. They also argue that this only limits the supply of colonies available to growers and that worker ants cannot reproduce.

Shipments into the state began in October in preparation for the almond pollination period during February and March. Fifteen shipments were rejected or delayed in 2005 before the new plan went into effect.

Although the plan is not mandatory and certification is not necessary for pest-free bee shipments to enter California, CDFA officials are encouraging out-of-state beekeepers to have their bee colonies inspected and certified to avoid delays.

A product of a working group of beekeepers, growers, and CDFA specialists, the plan has been approved by CDFA’s pest exclusion branch and has been circulated to all county agricultural commissioners in the state. It was modeled after the state apiary certification program of Texas and includes elements from related practices in Louisiana and other states.

The certification plan, said Chris Heintz, the ABC’s director of production research and environmental affairs, at the seminar, “reduces the risk of delays or denials to out-of-state beekeepers in transporting their hives as well as provides added security that almond growers will receive the pollination services that are needed to produce the number one agricultural export in California.”

Needs most available

The California almond industry says it needs an estimated two-thirds of the nation’s available honeybee supply during pollination and the requirement swells with every new acre planted in the state. Meanwhile, the supply of healthy pollinators has been challenged by Varroa mites, disease, and, until the new plan was implemented, California border restrictions. Bearing almond acreage for 2005 was estimated at 550,000.

“We need to pull our best minds together and identify some short- and long-term answers and get sufficient numbers of healthy bees to California to pollinate the almond crop,” said another speaker at the Modesto seminar, Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman, a USDA bee pollination researcher in Arizona.

Bee outlook better

Gene Brandi, veteran Los Banos beekeeper and member of CDFA’s Bee Task Force, said early prospects for the availability of bees for 2006 almond pollination are improved over 2005.

“A lot of out-of-state beekeepers who’ve never brought colonies to California before are coming or strongly considering it. Most have been lured by the high contract prices of $125 to $150 per colony. It’s supply and demand in its purest form, and that’s drawing people who otherwise wouldn’t have thought about it.”

Those prices are up from the ranges of $80 to $100 in 2005 and $55-$60 in 2004, and they also reflect higher transportation costs to move colonies.

For mature almond orchards, most growers place two colonies per acre, although some use up to three for insurance.

Brandi said California needs between 1.1 million and 1.2 million colonies. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, there are 2.4 million to 2.5 million commercially managed colonies in the nation. Not all are suited for movement to California, but the majority is.

But, he added, after typical “winter losses” to Varroa mite, pesticides, and disease across the county, the true percentage of colonies surviving until February remains to be seen.

Brandi said he’s had some losses in his own operation but not as many as last season.

The importance of honeybees to California agriculture extends beyond the $2.5 billion almond industry, and according to Eric Mussen, Extension apiculturist at the University of California, Davis, pollination of $4.4 billion worth of the state’s crops depends on them.

CDFA inspectors at border stations continue to check exterior colonies and pallets for “hitchhiking” RIFA, noxious weeds, or any other significant pests in dirt or debris. If any pests are found on uncertified shipments or more than five worker ants are found on certified shipments, the colonies and pallets must be cleaned before entering the state.

If no pests are detected at the border, shipments are put under a quarantine hold notice and allowed to proceed to their destination, where they are subject to inspection by the county agricultural department.

Driver responsibility

Drivers must provide county authorities with the exact physical address of the destination.

CDFA is working to exclude and eradicate RIFA because they are a threat to human health, as well as agriculture, property, and landscaping. The reddish-brown ants, about 1/16- to ¼-inch long, are aggressive and swarm anything that disturbs them. They anchor themselves with their mouthparts and sting repeatedly. Ten to 20 painful stings per attack are common.

They also feed on germinating seeds and damage crops and they can damage structures, electrical equipment, gardens, and landscaping plants.

They can be found where there is moisture and good drainage, typically on lawns, at the bases of tree trunks, along lawn curbing, and in bedding plants. They create mounds of fine-textured soil, ranging in size from a golf ball to a basketball.

According to CDFA officials, RIFA have been detected and eradicated in the state as far north as Sacramento County. They are currently treating infestations or monitoring recent eradication sites in Stanislaus, Merced, Fresno, and Madera counties as well.

When an infestation is found, CDFA and county agricultural officials typically place a hold order on any infested property to prohibit movement of soil from the site. Infestations are treated with registered insecticidal bait three or four times over a season to kill infesting colonies.

Asks grower help

John Hooper, program director for CDFA’s pest detection and emergency projects branch, called on almond growers to report any suspected RIFA infestations in their orchards. “Surveying the state for the presence of these ants is an impossible task for our workforce. We rely on residents to notify us of large numbers of aggressive ants or suspicious mounds that may house these pests.”

CDFA officials say growers should actively and regularly search for RIFA on their land and report any suspected RIFA sightings to their county agricultural commissioner’s office. They should also strive to obtain bees from RIFA-free sources, including those participating in the pilot program.

The greatest number of honeybee shipments entering California in 2004 was from North Dakota with 464, while shipments of about 200 to 300 each came from Idaho, South Dakota, Oregon, Montana, and Washington. The number of colonies per shipment varies with the size of the vehicle used.