It's the best of times for beekeepers in this season right now... the weather has been more favorable than not, and honey prices are steady and even increasing, and doing well enough to support a beekeeping operation for a change. Life isn't so bad at the moment.
But the memory of a 30%+ colony loss last winter hasn't gone away, and some beekeepers are still struggling to catch up rather than being able to make some head way with the good weather and the good crop. And for those commercial operations who contemplate pollinating almonds again next year, here's some food for thought, brought to you courtesy of those in the know in the almond industry in California.
There will be 740,000 acres of almond-bearing groves next February... an increase of 20,000 acres (2.7%). Realistically, almond growers will need between 1.3 million and 1.5 million strong hives this February to pollinate all those acres.
What's a strong hive? The hives they'll need must have eight of 20 frames full of bees and brood. That's a pretty strong hive for February because most hives, at least in the northern portion of the continent, have only four or five frames full at that time of year. With the exception of those in the South, beekeepers will have to move their bees to California around Halloween and start feeding them sugar and protein to maintain or increase their size so they will be strong enough for an almond grower to rent them. An eight-frame or stronger colony is a good rental for an almond grower. Though sometimes six- and seven-frame colonies can be rented for smaller trees, and for less money, a colony with fewer than six full frames usually doesn't get rented at all because it is simply too small to be productive... Doesn't get rented, that is, unless a grower hedged his bets and waited to see if beekeepers came west without first signing hive-rental contracts; if there are more bees than are needed, demand is greater than supply, and the almond grower wins. It's a gamble.
Of course it works the other way too. Sometimes beekeepers head west without a rental contract and wait to find that same grower the one who can't find a colony at any price, and who's desperate for bees to pollinate his almond groves to avoid watching his livelihood disappear down the toilet. Then the beekeeper wins. It's a gamble.
So, almond growers will need 1.3 million to 1.5 million bee colonies... out of about 2.5 million colonies in the whole of the U.S. That's between 52% and 60% of all the commercial honey bee colonies in the entire country. But and you knew there was more here, didn't you? if you figure another 30% loss next winter (that's been the average for the last four years with bad weather, nutrition and Colony Collapse Disorder wreaking havoc all over the map), then we don't really have 2.5 million hives. We'll have closer to 1.75 million colonies available next spring. That means California almond groves will need all but a half million of the colonies in the U.S., and more than 70% of the nation's bees will be in one area. That's not a lot of slack: A half million colonies can get stuck in the snow in Minnesota and New York any given February.
But like I said, it's been a pretty good season so far, and beekeepers the ever-optimistic farmers that they are are making up for those terrible winter losses as fast as they can. And, a good-weather summer now more often than not portends a less-than-devastating winter because the colonies are stronger, healthier and better able to withstand the rigors of a tough cold season, and the stresses of moving from the north to the south to the west to follow the crops that need pollinating. And, it seems, colony collapse disorder is a tad gentler after an easy summer. But only a tad.
So maybe there will be even more than 1.3 million to 1.5 million colonies to pollinate all those almond trees next spring, and the almond growers will find enough colonies to rent at the right price, and beekeepers will find enough growers who can pay the right price so everybody does OK.
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