With many almond orchards reaching full bloom by the third week of February, California growers appear to have all the bees they’ll need to pollinate their trees this season.

That contrasts with last year when growers barely had enough bees due to adverse weather and a poor honey crop in 2012 in California and many other areas of the country that supply the bees.

“I doubt if there’s any shortage,” says Gordon Wardell, bee biologist for Paramount Farming Company. “Most of the beekeeper’s I’ve talked with are sitting long this season.”

Bee industry veteran Joe Traynor, whose company, Scientific Ag Co., Bakersfield, Calif., provides pollination services, offers a similar assessment. “It looks like the numbers will come out even between what the growers want and what the beekeepers can provide,” he says.

One reason is that beekeepers responded to the small supply of bees for last year’s almond crop by boosting their colony counts in 2013.

To hedge against winter losses, beekeepers typically increase bee numbers by splitting about 10 percent of their colonies into two separate ones in spring and summer.  In 2013, many beekeepers boosted their number of splits to cover 30 percent to 40 percent of their total bee numbers. This provided a good supply of replacements and extra colonies across the country to meet the increased demand.

“Imagine a cattle rancher increasing a herd by 30 percent to 40 percent a year just to cover potential losses,” Wardell comments.

 

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As it turned out, this past winter in many areas wasn’t as hard on the bees as usual and new mite control measures resulted in lower than expected winter losses. The exception occurred in some areas of the upper Midwest where losses were heavy. Otherwise, around the country bee numbers were generally good. With more bees to begin with and lower winter losses, beekeepers ended up with a good supply of bees for this year’s almond pollination, he notes.

The number and condition of bees available for this year’s almond bloom varied among different regions of the country. For example, cooler, wetter weather in Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas last summer, reduced the number and strength of the hives there.

Meanwhile, lower winter mortality rates resulted in more bees in the South, including Florida and Texas. On top of that, increased spraying of orange, lemon and grapefruit groves there to control Asian citrus psyllid, which spreads Huanglongbing disease, prompted beekeepers to find a less-threatening environment in which to place their hives.

“California was an obvious choice for them at this time of year,” Wardell says.

The size and quality of the colonies this season is reported to be roughly the same as last year. “I doubt if you could tell the difference,” he says. “The hives may be half a frame smaller, if at all.”

Growers like to see eight frames of bees in their hives. Many will pay a bonus for more.

Most almond growers sign contracts with beekeepers in July and August to deliver bees for the following season. Concerns last summer about a possible shortage of bees from the upper Midwest for this year’s bloom pushed rental prices up about $10 to $20 a hive this season, Wardell reports. One estimate puts the average prices of colonies this year in the $160 to $170 range.

Pollen jackpot

Once almond flowers open and begin shedding pollen, bees can pollinate a tree in full bloom in about four or five days. However, the bloom in orchards tends to stretch out over several weeks as different cultivars come into bloom and each tree spreads out its blooming period, large in response to such environmental conditions as heat, humidity and soil moisture.

Many almond orchards received about twice the normal amount of chilling hours this winter, Traynor notes. “Usually, that indicates an early, flash bloom,” he says. “But, this year’s bloom seems to be occurring at the normal time. Based on field reports, I look for more of a strung out bloom.”

Almond flowers provide a rich source of pollen and nectar for the bees. For them, the annual California almond bloom, which has been called the world’s largest pollination event, is the jackpot of all pollen-nectar jackpots.

During bloom, growers commonly stock their almond orchards with two colonies per acre. In all, pollinating their 810,000 acres of bearing trees requires about 1.6 million colonies — two-thirds of all the commercial colonies now available in the United States.

With another 60,000 or so acres of trees expected to come into production in the next few years, the demand for bees will only increase. Meanwhile, the number of bee colonies has been static, if not declining, raising the possibility of a future shortage of bees for California’s almond bloom.

More than 60,000 acres of almonds are expected to come into production in the next few years. That doesn’t necessarily mean a corresponding increase in the demand for bees, Traynor notes. “These new plantings could well be offset by 60,000 acres or more being pulled out after the 2014 harvest due to lack of water and/or age of trees,” he explains. “Orchard productivity declines after 15 years and some 20-year old orchards with declining production are still being farmed due to current robust almond prices.”

About 200,000 to 400,000 colonies needed for the almond bloom come from California apiaries. The rest are trucked in by beekeepers from various parts of the country, many of them in the Plains and Upper Midwest. In the past few years, beekeepers in some of those areas, such as Nebraska and the Dakotas, have been losing prime forage land for their colonies. Attracted by strong prices, farmers have been replacing alfalfa and clover fields with corn and soybeans, both of which our poor food sources for bees. This has resulted in weaker colonies.

These changing cropping practices have also reduced desirable habitat for pheasants. “Bees and pheasants share a common problem,” Traynor says. “A coalition of beekeepers and pheasant hunters could be helpful in finding a solution.”

In the absence of natural forage, beekeepers are forced to feed expensive, but less healthful, sugar syrup and protein supplements. Typically, this intensive, supplemental feeding starts when crops and other vegetation begin to dry down in later summer and continues through the winter. That’s when bee colonies naturally reduce their numbers from say, eight frames per hive, to just three or four to survive.

However, last year, drought prompted many of California’s beekeepers to start feeding their colonies right after bloom, continuing through December.

“To produce a strong eight-frame colony in the winter, when almond trees start blooming, beekeepers have to feed quite a bit of supplement,” Traynor says. “It’s not easy to do and it’s expensive.”

“You have to take your hat off to the beekeepers,” Wardell adds. “As the demand for bees has increased, they’ve stepped up to supplying the bees.  Beekeepers face a wide range of challenges – from dealing with Varroa mites, nosema fungus and Colony Collapse Disorder to moving their bees across the country. They’re doing a marvelous job of producing healthy colonies to support California’s agriculture.”

 

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