For more than 50 years, beekeepers have been taking bees to the almond orchards of California. For the first 25 years or so, almonds were simply a place to go for California beekeepers early in the season. A few from nearby states came over too, pollinated, and left. When done, they took a pittance for their trouble and went home. It was a simple game.
But then, the almond industry began to grow as demand for the crop expanded and growers needed more and more bees to pollinate those trees. At the same time other crops in the California valley began to decline as less expensive almonds were imported from other parts of the world. That freed up valuable space, so expanding was easy. Almonds take about three years from planting to production and it was an easy investment. The price of the nuts continued to increase so money was easy.
But then, the next limiting factor on the horizon became bees. These were the years, in the 70s and 80s, of real cheap honey, and beekeeper businesses began to shrivel because they were designed and managed to make money on honey, not pollination. Pollination was simply extra money, not bread and butter.
Next, tracheal and varroa mites came to stay, and again, beekeeping outfits began to disappear. At an alarming rate, it turns out. Suddenly, the almonds didn't have enough California bees, or nearby bees, or even bees from far-flung states.
Now, wouldn't you think some sort of visionary would emerge here and see the future? See that when beekeepers want the highest possible pollination price for the smallest (least-expensive to produce) colonies possible, and growers want the lowest possible pollination price for the largest (most-expensive to produce) colonies possible that something had to give? You would think. But, nope.
And then, finally, the beekeeping game shifted from honey production to pollination. U. S. beekeepers couldn't compete with cheap, illegal, and often antibiotic-contaminated foreign honey on a price basis and simply changed gears. Bringing bees to trees began to drive the industry. Beekeepers needed pollination money. Depended on pollination money.
So every year, there's this chess game between growers and beekeepers. Growers know beekeepers have to pollinate, and beekeepers know growers have to have bees. Often, it's a man to man conversation, and who blinks first, loses. And usually, the one who blinks is the one who doesn't have as much information as the one who didn't. In the end, too often, the deal is settled with a handshake and not a contract. And that in itself can be problematic when price swings are huge.
Colony Collapse Disorder changed the way the game was played though. Beekeepers and growers alike were often clueless as to what was going on, on a day to day basis. How many bees were available? Who had good bees, and who had empty bee boxes? Who didn't even come because all the bees back home were dead when they looked? Beekeepers began to grow wary of early high offers. Growers paid what beekeepers with bees wanted because their regular beekeepers had bailed and couldn't help. Nobody really knows what's going on now. Nobody. Is it smart to lock in on a favorable price early with a contract and stick to it? Or do you wait and wait and wait and hope a panicky grower will offer anything you ask just to get bees in the trees again this year?
So once again this year, right on schedule, reports of problems with honey bees heading for (or already in) California preparing for almond pollination are surfacing. Some of the information may be duplicated, and some may be simply rumor, but the scope and volume of information should be enough to make beekeepers and almond growers take notice. Scream in terror is how one grower put it.
"Worst in 3 years." That's what one beekeeper said. And it happened in about two weeks. Three weeks ago, right after the national meetings, lots of these bees looked good. Beekeepers were happy, and growers were assured things were under control. Three weeks later a lot of those boxes were empty of live bees... sometimes. Sometimes lots of dead bees were inside. Sometimes some bees. It seems there's no pattern. At least at the moment.
Interestingly, some beekeepers who normally avoid problems by protecting their bees during the hardest part of the winter in huge potato warehouses are having problems. The weather, too, was against the bees this year. Deadly cold temperatures were harder than normal on the bees that had been loaded on trucks moving west, causing significant losses for some. Down south, where bees are normally soaking up the sun and honey from Florida's balmy days, winter seeped south and kept those bees from doing much of anything except staying home and keeping warm. So instead of building nicely, they stubbornly, simply stayed warm. They didn't grow, expand into colonies the size almond groves need. So they're out of the equation.
So prices are officially crazy. Three weeks ago if you asked $150 rent for colony you'd be laughed right out of the almond orchard. Today, $200 isn't an uncommon offer, and the line goes out to the parking lot for growers wanting to pay that amount. What's causing this?
Colony collapse disorder? Yes.
Poor nutrition from last summer's terrible weather? Yes.
Varroa mites? Yes.
One terrible winter? Yes.
A monocrop diet? Yes.
You like almonds? Buy a couple of bags this week. The cost is going to go up. These are the reasons why.
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