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.