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.