2007 Almond Crop
The crop looks great at this time – probably another record crop. Although we won’t know until the crop is in, it looks like growers with sub-standard bee colonies will get almost as good a crop as our growers. The weather was excellent except for the very first part of the bloom, so bee activity was also good. The price of almonds is holding at over $2/lb so almond growers anticipate a profitable year.
Blue Orchard Bees (BOBs)
The crop on Paramount Farming’s test block – using solely BOBs on an 84 acre block that is isolated 2+ miles from other orchards – looks good. Roughly 400 individual female BOBs per acre were used to set this crop. I visited the orchard with Frank Eischen and Henry Graham during bloom. We didn’t see any honey bees working the trees but saw anywhere from 3 to 6 BOBs per tree. At 86 trees per acre, this would amount to well over 400 BOBs per acre (BOBs spend a good part of the time getting mud to seal their cells). It is likely that we miscounted (our counts were made hastily); the only other explanation is that well over 400 female BOBs per acre were used and I feel certain that this wasn’t the case.
If 400 BOBs per acre can set a crop of almonds, surely one strong honey bee colony can do the same. Even conceding that BOBs are far more efficient pollinators, don’t the vast numbers of honey bees (7,000+ workers in a strong colony) more than make up for their lesser efficiency? BOBs rent for about 50+ cents per bee. Randy Oliver estimates that honey bees rent for about 1 cent per bee (ABJ, April 2006, p.281). Even if BOBs are 10X more efficient than honey bees (and this is debatable) honey bees are still a bargain.
Canadian beekeepers are trying to figure out how to cash in on California almond pollination, possibly with fall blow bees. Watch for developments.
Bees & Mandarins and a Conspiracy Theory
Although Paramount Citrus (considered by some beekeepers to be the evil twin of Paramount Farming) continues to threaten beekeepers in the citrus belt with legal action (if bees aren’t kept 2 miles away from certain mandarin plantings) they have not backed up their threats. Many California beekeepers would love to see Paramount sue them so this issue can be decided once and for all in a court of law (beekeepers feel they have a strong case). Paramount may have concluded that they can’t win in court and some believe that Paramount is behind recent efforts to legislate “bee-free zones” in the citrus belt.
Legislation currently being proposed in California reads “The secretary [of Agriculture] may promulgate regulations regarding the production of seedless varieties of citrus in the Counties of Kern, Fresno, Tulare and Madera.”
The reaction of some beekeepers to this proposal has been Promulgate THIS! however no mention of bee-free zones is made in this proposal and the Secretary could just as easily propose restrictions on certain problem pollen varieties of citrus. The current Secretary, A.G. Kawamura is believed to be sympathetic to beekeepers and it is unlikely he would propose bee-free zones in the citrus belt, however a new Secretary might. Stewart Resnick, the owner of Paramount Citrus, is, with his associates Sun Pacific and S&J Farm Management, the largest mandarin grower in California and also the largest grower of almonds, pistachios and pomegranates in California (and in the world) via Paramount Farming. Money is the life-blood of politicians and Mr. Resnick has made significant political donations in the past. Is it possible that the richest, most powerful agriculturist in the state would have influence in the appointment of a Secretary sympathetic to mandarin growers? Nah!!
Mussen be The Man
California’s extension Apiculturist, Dr. Eric Mussen, garnered two prestigious awards recently, Beekeeper of the Year from the CSBA (the first time, to my knowledge that a non-fulltime beekeeper has received this award) and the Award for Apicultural Excellence from the American Association of Professional Apiculturists. It says loads about Eric that this latter award has only been presented four times in the last 20 years. California beekeepers have long been aware of Dr. Mussen’s outstanding work but its nice to see Eric recognized nationally.
In addition to his Extension work, Eric has performed a number of valuable studies on the side (and where does he get the time?!) that have benefited beekeepers. One ingenious study showed that the pesticide Monitor did indeed cause significant damage to bee colonies (via brood damage) even though no dead bees were seen at hive entrances (and don’t we need more studies like this on the array of new materials that are now out there?). Eric recently wrote an excellent article on the vital importance of bee locations, esp. citrus locations. The article appeared in UC’s quarterly Extension newsletter Topics in Subtropics and is currently in the hands of state legislators that are considering bee-free zones in California’s citrus belt.
Dr. Mussen’s awards are richly deserved.
Bees and Pesticides
We used to have non-biased people studying the effects of pesticides on bees – Larry Atkins in California and Dan Mayer in Washington. Both had considerable input on the bee information that appears on pesticide labels. No more. Chemical companies pretty much write this information now with little or no input from bee scientists. The bee industry is badly in need of an independent person to study bee-pesticide effects, particularly the sub-lethal effects of some of the newer pesticides. Gene Brandi emphasized this point at the DC hearings earlier this month. Hopefully, people will take note.
As most California beekeepers are aware, no person has done more to further the cause of California beekeepers than Gene Brandi. Time is money, and no one has donated more of their time in the last two years, both in Sacramento and Washington D.C., on the mandarin issue and on other vital issues facing beekeepers. Gene is an articulate spokesperson for the bee industry and a consummate people person. Gene’s people skills are so refined that some outside the bee industry have asked “Is Gene Brandi really a beekeeper?”
I’ve attended meeting where Gene is always the voice of reason – no one gets mad at Gene and Gene keeps the doors to discussion open with anyone he is dealing with – not your typical beekeeper. The beekeeping industry couldn’t have a better ambassador than Gene Brandi. Go back 20 years and you’ll find Gene has spent an inordinate amount of time each and every year on bee issues. Note to CSBA: shouldn’t Gene be receiving some kind of compensation for the gratis hours he devotes to the bee industry every year?
All beekeepers are scientists to a certain extent, continually performing experiments and testing hypotheses with their bees. Gavin (“Gilly”) Sherman has merged these apparent disparate occupations. Gilly runs over 1,00 colonies (most of which he brings to us very year and they’re always among the best bees we have in almond orchards) and is also working on his PhD at UC, Riverside. Marla Spivak, no slouch herself as a scientist, was quick to notice Gilly’s brilliance and calls his published work for his MS thesis a terrific piece of science. Dr. Spivak has her students study it in the class she teaches at the U. of Minnesota.
You may have seen Gilly at one or more of the bee meetings, although he doesn’t have a commanding presence – yet; this will change as the depth of Gilly’s intellect is exposed for all to see and when he is inevitably introduced as “Dr. Gavin Sherman”.
Some have referred to Gilly as an intellectual (he is also fluent in four languages) and I share Gilly’s pain at being so labeled as I was called the same on one occasion (even though I get myself in trouble with the only language I know). I stand four-square with Gilly in defending ourselves against this outrageous slur.
Beware, the Colossus
“The varroa mite swaggers like a colossus across beekeeping in North America”.
John Miller, Author-Poet-Beekeeper, Northern California
From The Silence of the Bees, in High Country News, April 2007
The Importance of Breeding
Every beekeeper knows how important breeding is towards maintaining good stock. A case in point: “But [John] Miller does, like the gentle, dark Carniolan bees he tends, have impeccable breeding. His apian pedigree dates back to 1894 when his great-grandfather, a Mormon farmer named Nephi Ephraim Miller, traded a few bushels of oats for seven boxes of bees.
Same High Country News article quoted preceding
Those of you that have attended bee meetings recently are aware that multi-talented Marla Spivak, after he landmark work on hygienic bees, is now devoting her talents to propolis. Extracts from propolis have been shown to kill varroa (Bee Culture, July 2002, p.13; copy sent on request). Dr. Spivak is attempting to extract an ingredient(s) from propolis that can bee used to treat mites. This would be a major advance, since propolis, unlike most current mite-control chemicals, is a natural material in bee hives. Note: before you start cutting holes in your hives to encourage propolis production, mites will walk on propolis with impunity; it’s the extract from propolis that is effective as a miticide (and these extracts differ depending on the material from which the propolis was manufactured) although the effects of volatiles, if any, given off by propolis should be investigated.
It is of interest that propolis has been shown to be effective against a number of human maladies, including AIDS.
You have AIDS
Sorry. Not you, your bees. Varroa has been shown to impair the immune system of honey bees. Just as unsterilized needles spread AIDS (Auto-Immune-Deficiency-Syndrome) in humans, varroa mites spread viruses and AIDS in honey bees as the mites suck on the bees. U.S. honey bees have AIDS and probably always will as long as we have varroa (and we’ll probably always have varroa). Your bees will never be as healthy as they were pre-mite – deal with it. Deal with it the way Magic Johnson, et al., are dealing with AIDS – keep your bees in the best possible health with superior nutrition and judicious use of drugs (you can probably make the assumption that your bees get plenty of healthful exercise).
There have been a number of glowing reports on Aussie bees – how they become great honey producers once the packages take hold. A Big advantage of Aussie bees is that they don’t have AIDS – yet (Australia is currently free of both varroa and tracheal mites, so you start off with healthy stock).
A potential downside to Aussie bees has been noted by a number of people. Here’s Steve Sheppard: “It may be worth noting that a significant influx of bees from mite-deprived locations (such as Australia, for example) could have the unplanned genetic consequence to increase mite-susceptibility in U.S. populations, if such bees were used as a source of breeder queens or contributed significantly to drone mating pools in areas where commercial queens were being produced.” (Bee Culture, April 2007, p.26).
Also, you’re risking importing SHBs (small hive beetles) with Aussie bees. A cloud currently hangs over all Aussie imports: the light brown apple moth, a major Australian ag pest, was recently found for the first time in California. The first sighting was in San Francisco, then later in other parts of the Bay Area and Northern California. Hopefully its just a coincidence that the great majority of Aussie package bees land at the San Francisco airport.
The Aussie bees fared better this year than last in Frank Eischen’s almond pollination tests, showing that if Aussie bees are giving plenty of TLC pre-bloom (a major IF) they could be competitive in almonds.
Apimondia Down Under
September 9-14, Melbourne, Australia. You can arrive in Melbourne and leave from Sydney (and vice-versa) for the same plane fare. Two Aussies can provide good background on their country: Tom Keneally (his latest book is on Aussie history) and Robert Hughes, whose great TV Series, Fatal Shore may be available on DVD by now.
$ for Research
A number of beekeepers are set aside $1/colony from their almond income to fund bee research. A number of vehicles are available for this purpose; 2 major ones are Pam (Project Apis mellifera) 1750 Dayton Rd., Chico, CA 95928 and the Harry and Ruth Laidlaw Honey Bee Research Endowed Fund, c/o Dr. Walter Leal , Entomology Dept., UC, Davis, CA 95616. If your winter losses weren’t excessive, consider making a donation.
Before making such a donation, some beekeepers are understandably waiting to see if our government dumps a large cash windfall on the bee industry; if this happens, these beekeepers will either send their planned donation to the government, or to a charity or use it to purchase a long-desired toy.
Getting Ready for Almonds
Randy Oliver said it best: My whole beekeeping year revolves around one date – February 10th (ABJ, April 2006, p.281). In this regard, fall locations are the most important locations for today’s beekeeper – they easily trump summer honey locations. Year in and year out, our best almond bees are those that have a good, natural fall feed source, often rabbit brush. Although all beekeepers agree that good natural feed is far superior to and artificial diet, if you don’t have good fall locations, line up some pollen-protein feed. A number of good products are available.
Advice from John Miller: “leave the last 25 lbs of fall honey on the hive. The honey and pollen left on the hive will reward the beekeeper many times over the following spring. Forget the honey, harvest pollination dollars until the economic model changes.” Honey also acts as good winter insulation and this insulation was surely beneficial during our January cold spell this year.
Drought conditions in California mean the CA beekeepers will have a tough year. Not everyone can do his, but one beekeeper (who runs over 1,000 colonies) is compensating by putting only 12 to 24 colonies at any given site, and securing a number of different sites (easier said than done).
Rotate that Comb
At least every 6 years.
Your efforts at delivering a quality produce during these tough times are greatly appreciated by both myself and by our almond clients.