AgAlert By Christine Souza February 25, 2015
Covered in white blossoms, California almond orchards are now teeming with millions of honeybees that have been placed into orchards to pollinate the season's bloom, brought on early by sunny winter weather.
Successfully pollinating the state's 860,000 bearing acres of almonds will require an estimated 1.7 million bee colonies that come from beekeepers in California and out of state. The apiary business has experienced many challenges the past several years, including significant bee losses from the mysterious colony collapse disorder, mite problems, a lack of forage and impacts attributed to crop-protection materials applied during bloom.
To secure enough bees to pollinate its almond crop, Paramount Farming Co., a leading San Joaquin Valley almond and pistachio grower, purchased one of the largest beekeepers in the U.S., Florida-based Headwaters Farm.
"In an environment where bee supply is always in question every year, it gives us a little bit of security to have our own bees," said Gordon Wardell, Paramount director of pollination operations. "The stronger the colony, the better the pollination. In a year like this when we have a very compressed bloom, it's very important to have strong colonies to get out there and hit as many flowers as possible."
Using its own bees and bees supplied by outside beekeepers, Paramount needs more than 90,000 colonies this year to pollinate its almonds.
Almond growers managing their own bees is not new—but some have been successful, and some have not, said Ryan Cosyns of Madera County, whose family grows almonds and manages their own bees.
"The beekeeper (we had used) lost half of their hives two years in a row and notified us in January saying, 'We only have half of what you need.' This is really what spurred us to buy our own bees (in 2005), just that fear of being without bees for pollination," Cosyns said. "We got into the bee business to run our own bees, but then we inherited leased bees and some other accounts, but beekeeping wasn't really in our initial plan."
Butte County almond grower Dan Cummings, who has 10 years of apiary experience, said growers are always looking at ways to be vertically integrated, and taking care of pollination by purchasing bees is an option.
"For us in the Sacramento Valley, about one-seventh of the cost of producing a pound of almonds—a variable cost of production—is for bee rent. So, if you are inclined for vertically integrating and taking control of a critical input, bees are a natural place to look," Cummings said. "It is not only profit motivation and securing the inputs, but beekeeping is an interesting facet of a critical component of farming almonds."
Queen-bee breeder Brad Pankratz of Orland, president of the California State Beekeepers Association, said some almond growers in his area attempted to manage bees, but not always with great success.
"One of my bigger growers tried to manage his own bees, but it didn't work out and he had to rent more bees from me this year than the year before," Pankratz said. "Now, with the lack of forage and the drought, if you are not an experienced beekeeper you are really going to have a hard time with keeping bees if you don't know what you are doing."
Skilled labor is difficult to find and apiary businesses need workers who can diagnose diseases when they open a hive, which is tough, Pankratz said.
"Training guys takes a lot more than you think, for them to get it where you can send them out on their own," he said.
"Beekeeping is a tough thing to vertically integrate into," Cummings acknowledged, citing the "specialized knowledge and commitment" needed. "It is a very special individual that can do that, because beekeeping isn't easy by any stretch of the imagination."
Regarding whether more almond growers will decide to manage their own bees, Paramount's Wardell said he believes "other almond growers will watch to see how it works for us."
"Growers have tried this in the past and haven't always been successful, but there are almond growers that do own their own bees already," Wardell said. "It will be interesting to see if other almond growers do follow suit and do try to acquire their own bees."
In keeping with its other farming endeavors, the division managing bees for Paramount will be called Wonderful Bees and could market honey products, he said, although its primary focus is pollinating almonds.
Like other almond growers, Paramount has tried alternatives to reduce the number of honeybees needed, such as planting self-fertile almond trees that require fewer pollinators, and using blue orchard bees, which are being studied to work either in combination with honeybees or to even replace them.
"With the self-fertile almond, you can reduce the number of colonies in the orchard, but you still have to have a pollinator. Even then, we'd still need 45,000 colonies at one colony per acre," Wardell said. "Blue orchard bees do a great job and complement the honeybees very well, but we're having trouble getting the numbers up to do the level of pollination that we have to do."
New to pollination this season is a set of bee "best management practices," released last fall by the Almond Board of California as a guide to improve honeybee health. Practices were developed with input from almond growers, beekeepers, researchers, chemical registrants and regulators. The board described the practices as steps farmers can take with beekeepers to protect and promote bee health.
In the Central Valley orchards where Cosyns places bees, peak bloom has arrived, he said, and varieties such as Sonora have already reached petal fall.
The average price to growers for a colony guaranteed to contain eight frames of honeybees, Cosyns said, stands at about $180. The bees look good, he said, adding that he believes that after bloom there may be a little more forage this year than last year—but not enough.
"It seems there is a little more blooming in the pastures and the grape vineyards, but with the number of hives that are here, the forage pretty much evaporates," he said.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.