Almonds are the first crop to need pollination by honeybees each year, and because colony collapse disorder has destroyed so many bees each winter over the last few years, the pollination of California almond groves represents the first glimpse each spring into the state of the nation's honey bees. Here's an early look at what to expect.
Two stories are playing out in almond pollination this year. Both are still in their early chapters with a few more to be written before all those blossoms show up in March. Beekeepers at the just-finished California State Beekeeper's meeting, like farmers everywhere, talked more shop in the halls outside the lecture hall than listened to the speakers ... but both got lots of attention.
The big question from almond growers is will there be enough colonies that are strong enough to do the pollination job needed for the coming season? The simple answer seems to be yes, there will. Almond acres will be up this year. More than 725,000 acres will need bees this spring, up from 700,000 last year, as new trees planted 3 and 4 years ago hit their stride and need all the bees they can get. Up until this year that would have meant about 1,460,000 colonies to set up all over the valley out there. With the price of almonds strong and demand still increasing at a healthy rate ... well, bees are important.
But this year almond growers are looking at colonies a bit differently I'm told (and watching their costs, it seems). Rather than simply rent the standard 2 colonies per acre -- and not be too concerned about the strength of the colonies being rented -- they are cutting their rentals to 1.5-1.8 colonies per acre, but making darn sure those colonies are at least minimally strong. (Minimal strength is usually considered 8 frames of bees and brood, with a minimal temperature of about 50 degrees at about midmorning.) So that brings the total number of colonies needed to between 1,095,000 and 1,314,000. There are about 2.3 million or so colonies in the U.S. as of last year -- but this year's count isn't in yet, and it's been a tough year. So you can see why almond growers are asking. Colonies? yes. Strong colonies willing to travel? maybe.
Read how the 2008 almond pollination unfolded in this series of posts:
Will There Be Enough Bees to Pollinate the Almond Crop?, Feb. 13
As Almond Trees Are Pollinated, Colony Collapse Disorder Marches On, Feb. 22
Whew! Almond Pollination Going OK, Feb. 28
Diagnosing Die-off During Almond Pollination, March 7
But certainly there's more: Water is still an issue, remember. Can't grow those trees without it, and more trees need more water. First call says there will be enough for this season ... maybe. Second call says if it's tight again this year, 2011 will be much harder hit. And for some growers, it's more profitable selling water rights to city folks than to grow crops. How long will that last, I wonder?
And what about beekeepers? Signing a contract for almond pollination early in the season is just the start of the game. Once signed, beekeepers go into high gear making sure their rental colonies get and stay healthy, that they have large, well-fed populations, and are ready to move on fairly expensive trucks at the right time. That takes money. Lots of money nowadays. One recent estimate says it takes $175 a year to keep a colony healthy and alive ... which includes good data for labor, food, medications, equipment, 2 (maybe as many as 4 or 5) queens during the year, replacement colonies for normal losses, and overhead to just run a business. Commercial operations get a bit of a break on some things they buy because of bulk purchases, so a mid-sized operation can figure spending even more. I'd put it closer to $200 for most beekeepers if they really did the math.
Pollination prices are reported to be down a bit again this year, but it's early so who knows, really, and the shake out the week before bloom when beekeepers who don't have a contract get desperate and growers who don't have beekeepers get desperate too. Needless to say, beekeepers should decide early ... like this month ... if they are heading west or staying home to make honey. The price of admission to the Golden State may not be worth the reward at the end of March. It's truly pencil and paper time for income guesstimates from almonds, or potential income from producing honey next year (and honey next year will still be dear, after 2009 saw the worst honey crop on record) if the weather cooperates and you can stay away from the worst of the pesticides on monoculture crops and keep varroa and their respective viruses in check. Staying home certainly costs much, much less, but the light at the end of that tunnel may not be golden honey, but rather the train of low prices due to inexpensive imports, a poor crop or devastating pest and disease problems.
I've heard it said that those who help compulsive gamblers have the hardest time breaking farmers of this habit ... They gamble everyday, on everything. Dice, cards or football games are kid's stuff compared to out predicting the weather, the markets and luck.
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