Texas growers claim title to the nation’s largest cotton-producing state yet beekeepers and California almond growers claim the throne each spring for the largest pollination event on Earth.

The 2011 California almond bloom is just weeks away. An estimated 1.3 million honey bee colonies nestled in almond orchards are primed to pollinate an estimated 740,000-plus acres of bearing tree blooms. It is an annual rite and picturesque sight in California agriculture and a major precursor to the success or failure of the almond crop.

To illustrate the importance of bee availability for almond pollination, Christi Heintz, Almond Board of California (ABC) staff liaison to the group’s Bee Task Force and executive director of Project Apis m., showed a Southwest Airlines napkin during a pollination seminar at the 2010 Almond Industry Conference held in Modesto, Calif. in December.

The napkin illustrated the cross-country routes and cities served by Southwest planes. The map symbolically stood for the wide range of U.S. locations where honey bee colonies are located and then moved cross country to California for the annual almond bloom.

“One-half to two thirds of the honeybee colonies in the U.S. come to California to pollinate the almond crop,” Heintz noted. “It is the biggest pollination event in the world. It’s one of the most interesting examples of business synergism between the grower and the beekeeper.”

Honey bee health captured the headlines five years ago when bees in mass went AWOL around the world; flying away from colonies only never to return. Billions of bees died in the phenomenon later labeled Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Wireless cell phone transmissions and farm pesticides are among the early items blamed for the massive bee die off. Bee researchers have not unearthed a single science-based cause for CCD but studies continue in earnest. The best probability, some scientists agree, could be a combination of factors including the lack of forage, mites, pesticides, and others.

Reduced foraging ability is a growing reality in California due to increasing urban development, Heintz says. California’s population grew from 23 million in 1980 to 37 million in 2010 while farm acreage fell from 32 million acres to 23 million acres during the same time period. Fewer rural areas transcend to less foraging opportunities for bees before and after the almond bloom.

Eric Mussen, University of California, Davis Extension apiculturist, chimed in on the pollination discussion. He said the U.S. honey bee population peaked after World War II. About 5.4 million honey bee colonies (hives) existed in 1959. The number fell to 2.4 million colonies in 2009. A key reason for the decline, said Mussen, was a double whammy of mite infestations.

“The dip down began when tracheal mites got into our bees,” Mussen said.

From 1984 to 1989 tracheal mites spread across the country and took out about 50 percent of beekeeper’s bees. Then the varroa mite spread across the country (1997 to 2002) wiping out about half of the colonies. Beekeepers have been busily building the colonies back up.

Despite the mites and CCD, beekeepers today have about 2.4 million colonies, according to National Agricultural Statistics Service data on beekeepers that produce honey and report the production. The actual colony number is much higher than that, Mussen suggests.

The demand for honey bee colonies is larger than ever before. Bees are necessary to pollinate almond blossoms, and other crops including blueberries, cherries, and alfalfa seed. Bearing almond acreage in California has increased from 510,000 acres a decade ago to the current 740,000 acre level. Current non-bearing acreage is about 60,000 acres.

Simply put, increasing almond acreage requires more bees.

Increasing almond acreage requires more bees

Almond growers often complain about the rapidly-increasing cost of bee colony rentals. 2011 rental prices are projected in the $158/colony range, compared to an average $150/colony charge in 2010 and $148/colony in 2008. These figures are from the results of a survey conducted by the California State Beekeepers Association.

Third-generation California beekeeper Matt Beekman told the crowd that increasing almond acreage is the main reason for higher colony rental prices. It is a supply and demand issue. In addition, Beekman says bee health is another significant cost reflected in rental rates.

“Probably the least understood area by almond growers driving the beekeeper cost structure is maintaining bee health,” said Beekman of California Apiaries LLC in Hughson. “Maintaining bee health has been a year-round endeavor during the last five years with CCD.”

According to Beekman, a bee colony requires about 100 pounds of honey and 50 pounds of pollen “to tread water to stay even.” If the colony is lacking, the beekeeper adds a pollen supplement plus various sucrose and corn syrups to maintain the colony.

Strong bee health requires ongoing chemical treatments for varroa and tracheal mites, re-queening less productive colonies, and adequate nutrition levels.

“My biggest frustration is the lack of new products coming on the market for mite treatments,” Beekman explained. “We desperately need these products. Beekeeping is a small cottage industry. The economic incentive for larger companies to produce bee treatments is frankly not there.”

Queen bees do not last as long and replacement is expensive. Genetic research is yielding some solutions.

“Genetics are the long-term solution for beekeeping to breed more mite-resistant queens. Will we ever get to a 100-percent mite-resistant queen?” Beekman asked. “Maybe not, but we’ll get a more-resistant queen that requires less treatment and with softer products.”

While pesticides are blamed for CCD, are the chemicals really a culprit?

Mussen says agricultural chemicals are subject to rigorous examination by the Environmental Protection Agency at the federal and State of California levels. Chemicals used according to label instructions suggest the products are relatively safe for bees and the environment.

Pesticide-bee studies on acute toxicity have focused mostly on older adult worker honey bees. Mussen says more research is needed on how pesticides impact younger bee stages in the colony.

“Some of the chemicals, including those beekeepers put into the hives for mite control, seem to have detrimental effects on immature bees,” Mussen said. “Some beekeepers feel some of the chemicals create dying larvae and the inability to produce queens.”

Should almond growers and beekeepers stop using pesticides? No, says Mussen. Pesticides are critical to colony health and almond development.

In almond pollination, bees gather pollen when the flower anthers open, temperatures are 55 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, the wind is light, and no fog or rain exist – generally around 8:30 to 9:00 a.m. Pollen collection generally ends about 2:00 in the afternoon.

“The remainder of the day and night is a much better time to apply pesticides,” Mussen said.

On the issue of bee losses, Heintz says a target issue for the ABC and Project Apis m. is to reduce losses during the winter months.

”We are operating at about a 30 percent overwintering loss of bees due to CCD and this is unacceptable,” Heintz said. “We must get the overwintering bee loss down to 10 percent.”

Project Apis m. received research dollars from a specialty crop block grant to develop objective methods for bee health evaluations through laboratory analyses and to promote best management practices for beekeepers in crop pollination. Funds from a more recent block grant will study additional forage resources for bees before and after the almond bloom.

cblake@farmpress.com