The bee specialists agree that the shortage was the result of several factors which impacted the beekeeper’s ability to deliver the high quality honey bee colonies promised to almond growers.

While the finger is often pointed at neonicotinoid insecticides as a culprit for reduced bee numbers, the bee specialists point to last year’s drought in many areas of the nation (including California), a related decrease in foraging leading to malnutrition (starvation), varroa mites, and others.

Not high on their list is colony collapse disorder (CCD), the moniker for a disturbing trend where large numbers of honey bees fly from the hive and never return.

Mussen referenced a recent federal government survey which asked beekeepers for their views on recent honey bee losses. The top reasons given were starvation and varroa mites. CCD was far down the list.

“We really can’t blame CCD anymore,” Mussen said.

Cold temps, drought

Joe Traynor says extremely cold weather in California and other parts of the nation in January took a heavy toll on honey bees.

“Bees don’t like cold weather,” Traynor said. “Some beekeepers were blindsided and didn’t really know the real condition of the bees going into February (almond bloom). Many bees did not come in as well as beekeepers had hoped.”

Many bee colonies are trucked to California from northern-tier states, including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, the Dakotas, and Minnesota. Some North Dakota beekeepers bring bees to California in October and November, before heavy snows pile up on their home-state turf.

Once placed in California last fall, winter temperatures in January plunged and bee health slid downhill.

On drought, Mussen says California’s ongoing drought has reduced spring, summer, and fall wildflower populations. This has reduced available pollen for foraging bees. The end result is malnutrition.

Traynor says last year’s drought in the Midwest also reduced foraging opportunities and honey production. Some beekeepers were financially unable to feed supplements to increase bee health for almond pollination due to the smaller honey crop and reduced income.

Traynor also blames reduced bee health on increased Midwest corn and soybean plantings tied to higher commodity prices.

“Corn is a lousy bee plant,” Traynor said. “Corn pollen is a substandard nutrient product for bees.”

For years, Midwestern farmers enrolled in the USDA conservation reserve program (CRP) where farm land was taken out of production due to crop surpluses. Farm land was turned into prairie land with native clover and alfalfa which Traynor calls “great bee pasture.”

As CRP contracts expired and grain prices increased, Midwest farmers planted corn and soybeans on the land which reduced bee foraging opportunities.