Right now 1.2 million honey bee colonies are moving into thousands of almond orchards in the central valley of California. It is without question the largest single pollination event on the planet, and this year the drama of Will there be enough bees? is still unfolding.
Getting bees motivated to pollinate with enthusiasm in the middle of winter is a challenge every year for beekeepers, and this year is no exception, for a variety of reasons.
First, the season is late ... its been cool and rainy so far, and that has delayed bloom. This in turn delayed moving bees into the orchards, because an almond orchard before bloom is a wasteland as far as bees are concerned ... theres nothing to eat for miles and miles and miles. And with nothing to eat for a couple of weeks, beekeepers want to keep them close together so they are easy to check, and easy to feed if necessary. So they wait.
Second, this year has been hard again on bees because of the drought in many areas where bees were kept, especially the western half of the U.S. But many of those from the east, or the southeast anyway, have had the same problems, and they, too have been stretched to the limit of good health. In fact, many from the southeast U.S. arent moving this year because the condition of their colonies is barely strong enough to make it to spring, let alone get pushed for pollination. Even without CCD, honey bee colonies are stressed again this year, even with extra food, extra sugar, and extra TLC.
But strong, healthy colonies do exist this year, like every year, but they dont go cheap because there are fewer of them, and, it costs good money to keep them healthy and strong. Some figures go as high as $125 to get, and keep a colony strong enough, and healthy enough to do a good job of pollinating almonds for a month, so that seemingly outrageous $160 fee isnt all that outrageous after all.
Like every year theres strong colonies that go fast, average colonies that go, and ugly colonies that may go, if a grower gets desperate. And, like every year there are some beekeepers that hold out till the last minute to see if a grower is desperate enough to pay even more ... greed gets the best of some growers and some beekeepers when the blossoms begin to open.
Hanging over all this is the specter of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), waiting to see if indeed it will cause massive shortfalls of colonies this year. So far, it seems unlikely since those who have suffered, and many have, checked early enough to let growers know they cant make their contract and they should find other beekeepers. And so far, theres been enough beekeepers. So far.
If you want to watch almond bloom live, check out this web cam, which will (as soon as bloom begins) show almond orchard bloom conditions in the south, central and northern parts of the valley. Its worth the trip every day just to watch the bloom progress.
So is CCD a problem? Yes, because beekeepers are still importing thousands of colonies (in the form of packages) from Australia to make up the shortfall they suffered earlier in the season. These packages cost about $150, plus the work it takes to get them into colonies, built up and strong enough to pollinate, so theres no profit in using packages ... its a break even deal for the beekeepers that do this. They may make a pollination contract later in the season, and they may make honey, too. And they may not ... depending on the weather, their location, and sometimes ... just plain luck.
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