What Happened to the Bees This Spring?

(The following is brought to us by the American Bee Journal.) 

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Randy Oliver, commercial beekeeper and scientist, has investigated and summarized the factors involved in colony losses this winter, including the contribution of pesticides. In this lengthy two-part analysis he has obtained many opinions from both commercial beekeepers and scientists.

By now, most everyone has heard that honey bee colonies died in massive numbers this winter. Reporter Dan Rather, in his newscast Buzzkill, showed unfortunate beekeepers, some of whom had lost half or more of their colonies, predicting gloom and doom for the bee industry. What were the causes of this year’s bee shortage? As Rather says, “Everyone has an opinion.” The question is whether those opinions are based upon fact! So let’s go over the events leading up to the bee supply debacle.

Setting the Stage
Nearly 800,000 acres of almond trees in California came into bloom this winter—the trees typically start flowering about Valentine’s Day, and the bloom lasts for only about two weeks. Almonds require cross fertilization between adjacent rows of varieties, and honey bees are trucked in from all over the country to do the job (roughly a million and a half colonies). Many large commercial beekeepers move their hives into California in November to overwinter in holding yards; others build them up on winter pollen flows in Florida or Texas, or hold them in temperature-controlled potato cellars until shortly before bloom. The hives are generally placed into the orchards about a week before the first flowers appear. There is virtually no forage in the orchards prior to, or after bloom in many areas.

The Lead Up
Two seasons ago there was also a shortage of bees in almonds, following the coldest January (2011) in 17 years (cold being a major stressor of wintering bee colonies). Beekeepers then replaced their deadouts with package bees and splits, thus starting a new generation of colonies, which tend to have lower varroa mite levels than established colonies. These colonies entered autumn 2011 in pretty good shape, and then enjoyed the fourth warmest January (2012) on record! As a result, there was the lowest rate of winter mortality in years, and plenty of bees for almonds in 2012.

I was curious as to whether the colony loss rate was linked to the use of neonicotinoid insecticides. There is no recent USDA data, so I went through the California Pesticide Use Reports (data available through 2010). I plotted the amount of imidacloprid applied to crops in California in the preceding year in red (the seed treatment clothianidin didn’t even make the top 100 list of pesticides applied). Although there appears to be a possible correlation from 2006 through 2009, the trends were reversed for 2010. I will be curious to add the 2011 data when it becomes available.

In March of 2012 I received a phone call from a California queen producer who had a prescient insight as to a potential brewing disaster. He was receiving calls for queen bees from Northern beekeepers whose bees had already grown to swarming condition due to the unseasonably warm spring weather.

The queen producer noted that such early brood rearing also meant early mite buildup, and predicted that since most Midwestern beekeepers treat for mites by the calendar, that they would unknowingly allow mites to build to excessive levels before treatment. This was strike one against the bees.

To continue reading, click here: What Happened to the Bees This Spring?


Almond Growers Pay Record Prices Amid Bee Shortages

(The following is brought to us by the American Bee Journal.)

                           The Bakersfield Californian  By John Cox  2/19/13

By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

From left, bee keeper Bill Mathewson, farm manager Jose Gomez, and almond farmer Richard Enns check the health of some bee hives that within a few days will be busy pollinating Enns' orchards as the trees begin to bloom. Enns says he spends $100,000 on bees to pollinate his almonds. 



With Kern County's almond bloom expected to get under way this week, Geordy Wise sure is glad he lined up his bees last fall instead of waiting. The Shafter and Wasco-area orchard manager said he ended up paying between $150 and $185 per hive -- high prices, to be sure. But they're well below the $200 to $225 others are reportedly shelling out lately amid a nationwide bee shortage.

This year's almond pollination may well set records, not only in terms of hive prices but also for bee colony losses that have claimed 40 percent of some beekeepers' stocks, and in some cases much more.

Commercial beekeepers say a combination of factors is to blame: disease, a harsh winter, drought in much of the United States and government restrictions on a popular mite treatment, not to mention increasing demand by California's expanding almond industry.

"It's the worst year I've ever seen, really, in about 30 years, as bee losses go," said Joe Traynor, a widely respected bee broker in Bakersfield.

The upshot is that large growers of almonds are having to make do with fewer hives, while beekeepers focus on rebuilding their bee populations.

Bees have been a source of concern around the world for years. A mysterious ailment called colony collapse disorder began devastating bee populations in 2006. How much the disorder contributed to this year's losses is unclear.

Some almond growers wonder whether the concerns -- and the hive prices -- have been overblown. They emphasize that yearly ups and downs will always be part of working in agriculture.

"I think it's like anything, like the farming," Wise said. "What you put into it is what you're going to get out of it. I think there's better beekeepers than others."

Bad year for bees

Beekeepers say this year was different in several ways. About half the bees needed to pollinate California's almond bloom come from outside the state, including places struggling with a drought that has reduced forage and weakened bees.

Also, a popular mite treatment was taken off the market last year, leaving many beekeepers without a viable alternative for warding off insects responsible for spreading viruses among bees.

Jeff Vicknell, who sells bee medical treatments and nutritional supplements out of a warehouse off Weedpatch Highway, said he has watched beekeepers struggle this year with severely malnourished and sick colonies. This year more than in years past, he said, beekeepers are paying dearly to keep their bees healthy -- sometimes to no avail.

"These are people that know what they're doing, that have been in the business all their life, and now there's no hope," he said.

Montana beekeeper Bill Dahle said he lost 10,000 colonies over the past year, leaving him with only 3,000. He reckons it's his worst year in three decades.

Nevertheless, he and his son made their annual trip to Kern County in hopes of salvaging some of their investment and earning money to reinvest in new colonies.

"We'll be back again strong as ever," he said stoically. "It's just one of those glitches."

The situation has obvious implications for California's thriving almond industry, which in 2011 sold product valued at nearly $3.5 billion.

Statewide, productive almond acreage grew by an estimated 22,832 acres last year, or 3 percent, and was on track to increase at almost the same rate this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

The Almond Board of California has been monitoring the bee situation and, since 1995, invested $1.4 million in honeybee health research. It has also encouraged growers to set aside land for hungry bees to forage.

"We need a chain of food and forage for these bees all the way through the year," said Bob Curtis, the almond board's associate director of ag affairs.

Paramount Farms, one of Kern County's leading ag producers, contracted some 92,000 bee hives to pollinate its 46,000 almond acres this year.

It's not as many bees as the company would like, but with Paramount's focus on working closely with beekeepers to ensure strong colonies, company bee biologist Gordon Wardell said it will suffice.

He likened Paramount's balancing act to having too little icing for a big cake.

"What you do is you just spread the icing a little bit thinner around it. And that's what we're doing with the bees," he said.

Wardell said that part of the reason hive prices have risen so sharply this year is that last year there was an excess of bees that lowered costs for growers who signed pollination contracts late in the season.

"These same growers this year thought they'd wait till the very end to get bees again, and there was a shortfall of bees," he said.

Now, he added, "they're being gouged, if you want to call it that. ... They're panicking."

Whether the hold-outs will have much selection this year is hard to say. But anecdotal indications aren't good.

The secretary-treasurer of the California State Beekeepers Association, Carlen Jupe, recalled a telling moment at the Delta Bee Club meeting Feb. 5 in Oakdale.

The 90 people present, most of them commercial beekeepers, were asked who had extra bees beyond what they had already contracted to growers this season.

"Nobody raised their hand," Jupe said.

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Serious Spot Shortages for Bees in Almonds

(The following is brought to us by Carlen Jupe, CSBA Sec/Treas)  2/18/13
Lyle Johnston is a respected beekeeper/broker - one of the largest almond bee brokers in the state. Lyle is based in both Colorado and Madera, California.
"This has been a wild ride! Bees ended up at $200 to $225 in this area. 5 framers ended up at $180! Massive shortage. I had growers calling yesterday still needing 2800 hives and many growers needing less than that with no potential of getting any!
I saw this coming last July!! Growers had no idea what was about to happen and they would have no part in listening to me. This shortage will only continue to grow more next year. I have told my guys to expect a steep increase on what I bring out here next year.
Most beekeepers that went down that I know went down to off the chart varroa mite levels. 50 plus mites on ether rolls in Sept. Also definitely something going on in North Dakota with the canola and sunflower areas!"   Lyle Johnston

Almond pollination prices, pollinators and growers heat up - An Editorial

(The following is brought to us by CATCH THE BUZZ (Kim Flottum) Bee Culture, The Magazine of American Beekeeping, published by A.I. Root Company.) 

It’s been a somewhat contentious pollinating season in California this season so far. Growers have been reluctant to dig deeper to get good colonies, and beekeepers have had a tough time getting colonies in good shape at the prices offered. 

Future shortages were apparent last summer, even last spring at the end of the season when I was there because water was already a problem in many foraging areas…not only in California but in much of the country. Nutrition, or basically sources of enough good food was one of the keys in a season-long struggle to just keep up.

Beekeepers were faced with either unavailable but good mite control, or expensive but good mite control, but either way the cost of keeping a colony alive kept increasing. Moreover, just the overall cost of getting a colony to strong-enough-strength has gone up, and growers have been unwilling to accommodate those costs, even considering the fact that the price of almonds just keeps increasing…both because of worldwide demand and a short crop last year because of water shortages.

Without adequate compensation there is little incentive for beekeepers to spend more money on colonies ahead of time unless some provision is made to cover those expenses. Several have said it’s safer to work hard on fewer colonies than to gamble on providing more colonies…recall our article last year comparing almond pollination, producing an almond crop, and a game of 5 card draw.

So this season some colonies are in California weaker than they were planned to be, some colonies are in California empty of bees altogether, and some colonies of bees are in California that weren’t planning on being there at all just to fill the gap of fewer colonies and the promise of gold in the orchards fixing the problems created by weaker colonies and more almonds that got planted this year. Florida has sent something like 100,000 colonies this year, up about 20% according to Ag. officials there. Not enough to threaten the orange honey crop, or the orange crop itself, but a bigger chunk than ever….from one coast to another. 

So forever, honey bee colonies in almond orchards have been viewed as a commodity by almond growers…no more and no less than fertilizer, water or insecticide. Simply one more input to a successful crop. So what happens when that input says NO? With honey heading towards $3+/pound, shipping going up (those Florida beekeepers picked up the tab for sending those bees to California you know, which comes right off the bottom line of the profit column…what the heck happened to cost plus freight?), other crops vying for the attention of all those bees on the east coast in good shape, and the price of a pollinating colony going up about 15% in the last year generally… I don't care what the Almond folks think...this is 2013...not 1993.

It’s been a tough year so far and it’s going to be another tough year, even if everything goes right, because it costs a beekeeper lots of money to catch up, and even lots of money to stay even, and there will be still more almonds to pollinate next year. From where I sit the beekeepers have just seen your call, and raised.   And the answer better be right because lots and lots of almond customers are watching your next move. Screw it up, play hard ball, and the demand goes south because they won't know if there will be a crop next year and they won't bet on you again...see the bet, spend the money and you can be pretty sure customers will feel safe in putting in orders. 

Your call....


Bees in Kern County Almond Pollination

The following is brought to us by Carlen Jupe, Sec/Treas California State Beekeepers Association.

This video is about bees doing almond pollination, and may be especially helpful as an unbiased view of what it is like to work European honey bees, for those of you who have to convince people that this is different from working Africanized ones.


Honey Bee Shortage Alarms California Almond Industry

Western Farm Press   By Kathy Keatley Garvey, UC Davis   2/12/13

Winter honey bee losses and the resulting fewer bees per hive could spell trouble for almond growers in California.

"Last year was not a good year for honey production in the United States and it could be one of the worst honey production years in the history of nation, although it’s been pretty rough in some of the previous year."

California almond growers may not have enough honey bees to pollinate this year’s crop of 800,000 acres, says Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology. He attributes the difficulty to winter losses and less populous hives.

“We need 1.6 million colonies, or two colonies per acre, and California has only about 500,000 colonies that can be used for that purpose,” he said. “We need to bring in a million more colonies but due to the winter losses, we may not have enough bees.”

Those winter losses -- still being tabulated -- and the resulting fewer bees per hive could spell trouble for almond growers, he said.

“Last year was not a good year for honey production in the United States,” Mussen said, “and it could be one of the worst honey production years in the history of nation, although it’s been pretty rough in some of the previous years. Usually when we’re short of nectar, we’re short on pollen, and honey bees need both.  So, 2012 was a bad year for bee nutrition.”

Malnutrition is one of the stressors of colony collapse disorder, the mysterious malady first noticed in the winter of 2006 that has decimated one-third of the nation’s bees every year.  Some beekeepers have reported winter losses of  90 to 100 percent.

(See related, Honey bee losses defy solitary explanations)

In CCD, the adult bees abandon the hive, leaving behind the queen bee, brood and food stores. Bee scientists think CCD is caused by a multitude of factors, includes, pests, pesticides, parasites, diseases, malnutrition and stress.

“We don’t know how many more bees will be lost over the winter,” Mussen said. “We consider the winter ending when the weather warms up and the pollen is being brought into the hives.”

“Many, many colonies are not going to make it through the winter,” said Mussen, an apiculturist in the UC Davis Department of Entomology since 1976.  “We won’t have as large a bee population as in the past.”

Depending On Strong Colonies

In other words, fewer colonies will be available for the almond growers and the colonies that are available aren’t going to be as populous, he said.” Almond growers usually want at least eight frames of bees per hive,” Mussen said, “but this year they may be lucky to get six.  That’s one-third less bees per hive to pollinate the orchards.”

Mussen estimated a good solid hive with eight frames amounts to 2000 bees per frame or 16,000 bees.

Already brokers are getting calls from beekeepers saying “I can’t fulfill the contract. I’m going to be short.”

Mussen said it may all work out well in the end as “bees pollinate almonds on a community basis. The strong colonies will make up for the weak colonies. The strong colonies will clean the orchard of pollen by early afternoon and then go down the street and grab food from nearby orchards.”

(See related, Honey bee conference spotlights need for more research)

San Joaquin almond orchards are already starting to bloom, “but it’s going to be late up here in the Sacramento Valley,” he said.  Kern County grows more almonds than any other county in the state.

“If we hit abnormally warm stretches that push out all the bloom at once,  that will be good,” said Mussen. “It’s likely that cross-pollination will be better if we have a steady period of warm weather, instead of a warm-cold fluctuating period.”

Although the almond growers are paying a lot of money for their pollination services –an average of $150 per hive—there’s no guarantee it will be a good nut set, Mussen warned. “If it’s too cool, fertilization may not occur.  The pollen tubes won’t grow all the way down to the base of the flower to the ovum.  The good nut set occurs within the first three days of pollination or at the most, within five days.”

On the other hand, if the weather is too hot and dry, the tissue dries out, he explained.  “So we need nice warm weather that’s not too hot or too cold to get good fertilization and nut set. It’s not always  the bees’ fault if the nuts fail to grow.”

Many beekeeping operations truck in thousands of colonies to pollinate California’s almonds. One beekeeping operation used to bring 16,000 colonies, Mussen said, “but that 16,000 could be half that this year.”  The bees are trucked here from all over the nation.

Around Feb. 14 the average almond orchard in California is in full bloom, but some orchards bloom earlier or later, depending on the cultivar and the weather.  An almond orchard blooms a total of about two weeks, he said, pointing out that “the season is short.”

“Around March 7 to the 10th is the last pollination period for almonds in California,” he said. That means that some beekeepers can do double duty with their bees , first pollinating orchards in early February and then heading off to other orchards  for the last blooms of the season.”

Almonds are California's biggest export.  This year the National Agricultural Statistics Service is forecasting a record-breaking 2.10 billion meat pounds, valued at approximately $3 billion. Eighty-percent of the global supply of almonds is grown in California, and about 70 percent of California’s crop is marketed overseas.

Source: Western Farm News

Troubling Bee Shortage in Almond Orchards

Bug Squad - Happenings in the Insect World   By Kathy Keatley Garvey 2//8/13 

California almond growers are worried--and rightfully so--about the honey bee shortage.

Honey bee guru Eric Mussen, Extension apiculturist with the UC Davis Department of Entomology, said today that almond growers may not have enough bees to pollinate this year's crop of 800,000 acres.

“We need 1.6 million colonies, or two colonies per acre, and California has only about 500,000 colonies that can be used...






Visit the Kathy Keatley Garvey Bug Squad blog at: http://ucanr.org/blogs/bugsquad/
Visit the Kathy Keatley Garvey website at: http://kathygarvey.com/

Why This Honey Bee Research Is So Important

Bug Squad - Happenings in the Insect World   By Kathy Keatley Garvey   1/10/12

They're on to something.


An international research team has been researching honey bee pollination of almonds in the three-county area of Yolo, Colusa and Stanislaus since 2008, and what these scientists have discovered is astounding.

The bottom line: Honey bees are more effective at pollinating almonds when other species of bees are present.

The research, “ 


Visit the Kathy Keatley Garvey Bug Squad blog at: http://ucanr.org/blogs/bugsquad/
Visit the Kathy Keatley Garvey website at: http://kathygarvey.com/

Honey Bees Are More Effective at Pollinating Almonds When other Species of Bees are Present

  UC Davis, Department of Entomology 1/10/12

DAVIS--Honey bees are more effective at pollinating almonds when other species of bees are present, says an international research team in ground-breaking research just published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. The research, which took place in California’s almond orchards in Yolo, Colusa and Stanislaus counties, could prove invaluable in increasing the pollination effectiveness of honey bees, as demand for their pollination service grows.

When blue orchard bees and wild bees are foraging in almonds with honey bees, the behavior of  honey bees changes, resulting in more effective crop pollination...


First Almond Blossom of 2013

Bug Squad - Happenings in the Insect World   By Kathy Keatley Garvey 1/9/2013 

Talk about an early bloomer!

At least one almond tree was blooming in California on the first day of the year. In the Benicia State Recreation Area, to be exact.

We spotted the almond tree flowering on Jan. 1 near the entrance to the state park. The delicate white blossoms poked through a rusty fence as they were dignitaries at a meet-and-greet reception.

From the looks of the blossoms, the buds had probably opened...


Visit the Kathy Keatley Garvey Bug Squad blog at: http://ucanr.org/blogs/bugsquad/

Visit the Kathy Keatley Garvey website at: http://kathygarvey.com/

Almond Industry Future Looks Strong

Western Farm Press  By Greg Northcutt  8/24/12 

California almond growers and the rest of the state's agriculture community continue to shake their heads in wonderment as harvest gets underway on the second 2 billion pound crop in a row.

And there are big smiles waving back and forth with the shaking heads.

Industry marketers say they can sell every one of those pounds at profitable prices.

The question that lingered as the industry approached its first 1 billion pound crop just a few years back continues to hang around: When will the almond bubble burst?

According to the sales manager of a major almond processor...

Read more... 

(The above is brought to us by CSBA Sec/Treas, Carlen Jupe, courtesy of  Joe Traynor.) 9/15/12

Project Apis m. Newsletter - August 2012

The Latest News from Project Apis m.

Almond Status Update - August 13, 2012, Improving Queen Stock, Pollination Contracts, Driftwatch, and much more. 

Project Apis m. now has a 'Seasonal Guide of Best Management Practices' brochure available in PDF form online or upon written request for your beekeeping club meetings (click here). Focusing on honeybee health and colony strength for pollination services, this comprehensive pamphlet covers Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter.  Nutrition, pest and disease control, colony and business management are just a few of the topics covered in the guide.

Contact Project Apis m.