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.