The Nonpareil almond crop is light, and since Nonpareils comprise about 1/3 of California’s almond acreage, the total almond crop will likely be less than last year, in spite of an increase in bearing acreage. Most growers will use less water than their almond trees ideally need, which will further depress yields this year and next.
The 2016 Season
Continued dry weather has again cut surface water deliveries to growers and is increasing the pressure on a finite supply of ground water. The acreage of new almond plantings continues to surpass the acreage of older trees being pulled out by a wide margin. Growers must order their trees from nurseries two years in advance of planting. Some growers that planted this year might not have done so if they had to make the decision today.
We are making a $15/colony price increase on 2016 bees. If you wish to bring bees to us next year (and I hope you do) fill out the enclosed form and return it to us soon, so we can make plans for 2016. At this time we could be short on bees for 2016 since we are losing 2 beekeepers that have brought us 3,500 colonies in past years. We also may be long on bees, if we lose growers due to our price increase. We will notify you of how many colonies we will need from you as our supply/demand picture comes into better focus in the coming months. If we are short on bees, you will be the first that we will call to make up the slack. Please advise us of other beekeepers that can meet our standards — a limited pool since many beekeepers don’t want to work with us.
Grading and sorting bees
We appreciate the time you take to cull out sub-par colonies prior to delivering bees. Many of you have placed your bees with us for 10+ years (some for 20+) and have never been docked a single colony. Many of you have been able to rent your culls elsewhere at a reduced price, and I encourage you to do so. At current almond pollination prices, it is tempting to throw in a cull here and there in order to make the average. With rare exceptions, most or all of you have resisted this temptation – noted and appreciated.
The 2%ers, Then and Now
A long-held tenet of beekeeping is that every time a load of bees is moved, 2% of the queens are lost. I first broke into beekeeping years ago, working for a Bakersfield-based pollination service for alfalfa seed growers. There were over 50,000 acres of alfalfa seed in Kern County, no almonds, and the top beekeeper in the service was Paul Ross. Even though Paul would invariably have the best bees, he would always haul 102 colonies on his truck and only charge for 100 – he figured that the grower shouldn’t have to pay for 2% of the colonies that were likely queenless after delivery. No other beekeeper did this, or has ever done this to my knowledge. Those beekeepers that “generously” throw in an extra 10% on loads of 2 to 4 frame almond colonies, don’t count. Paul was “old-school”. We don’t penalize you for the occasional sub-par colony we find — it could have been a good colony when you put it on the truck – what we do object to is purposely throwing in subpar colonies in order to make an average.
Too many beekeepers (not you) now feel it’s too burdensome to sort out sub-par colonies – that if one or 2 colonies on a pallet are 3 or 4 frames, and the ones next to them are 12 frames, the almond grower is still getting a good deal. Paul Ross would be appalled at some of the bee colonies that wind up in almond orchards today, as some of you have informed me. Instead of adding 2% more superior colonies to each truckload of almond bees loads (as Paul Ross would do) some beekeepers see nothing wrong with adding 2% dinks (or more, or much more).
When I began brokering almond bees in the Modesto area in 1968, the first beekeeper I called was Paul Ross; Paul said only a crazy person would haul bees from Southern California to Modesto for $5/colony so I wasn’t able to work with him. Paul’s son, Tom, now supplies 800+ colonies for us to a Kern County orchard that calls for 864 colonies (+or-5%); this year after delivering 896 colonies to this orchard, Tom went through his bees, culled out 72 subpar colonies, which he placed just outside the orchard, so instead getting paid for 896 colonies, he only got paid for the 824 colonies charged to the grower. Tom’s bees, after culling, averaged 13 frames (by an independent inspector called in by the grower). Tom could have easily salted the remaining 824 colonies with his 72 culls (as many beekeepers would do) and still have come out with a 10+ frame average; he chose not to and wound up with a self-imposed penalty of over $12,000. Paul Ross passed away a few years back but he would be proud of how Tom has carried on his legacy. Like Tom, almost all of you “do the right thing” and leave your culls at your stockpile sites (or rent them out on other contracts). You are part of an elite group of beekeepers that work with us and we pull out all stops to make sure you are properly compensated for the product you deliver.
I’m encouraged by the number of young beekeepers working with us that retain old-school values (Paul Ross values) probably handed down from their beekeeping parents or mentors. Some people today despair that the good old days are gone – the times when people in commerce did the right thing without thinking about it. Based on the beekeepers that work with us, I feel that the answer is a resounding No to the question posed by Bakersfield’s Merle Haggard in his classic song Are the Good Times Really Over for Good?
The Super Achievers
Most of us putter along at maybe 50% of our potential on a good day. We might reach 80% on a select day, but can rarely sustain it (I speak from personal experience). The beekeepers that work with us are well above average in this regard. Three individuals that I have worked with stand out, in my opinion, as Super Achievers – I am somewhat in awe of them, as they sustain a high level of productivity over an extended period of time. They are discussed below:
Randy Oliver – Randy’s output continually amazes me. His consistently informative, meticulously researched articles in the ABJ have helped many, with much of his information derived from hands-on work with his own bees (now with the help of his two sons). Randy is a born teacher and is in demand as a speaker at both national and international meetings. I know of no one since Lorenzo Langstroth that wears the mantle of Beekeeper/Scientist better than Randy. For proof, check out his website, www.scientificbeekeeping.com
Gordon Wardell – Since Gordon came on board a few years ago, he has not only raised the bar for Paramount beekeepers, but for all beekeepers. Gordon’s presentations this past winter at PCA meetings went a long way to reducing bee losses to fungicides for all beekeepers. Gordon also contributes much in his positions as chair of Project ApisM and as president of the So. Valley Bee Club. Gordy also oversees Paramount’s Blue Orchard Bees, a full-time job for anyone else. And, he teaches a course at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. I don’t know what Paramount is paying Gordy, but if they were to double his salary they’d still be getting a bargain.
Ron Spears – Ron runs about 20,000 bee colonies and gets more out of his bees than any beekeeper I know. Ron is generous in sharing information, and materials, with other beekeepers and his work ethic is second to none – the man works harder than anyone I know. I like to think that I could have kept up with Ron when I was younger, but I’m not so sure. Ron was with us for several years about 10 years ago, but we had an acrimonious divorce a few years ago (Ron did a bad thing). Ron did help me out 2 years ago when he supplied 500 colonies when we came up short. I thought that was the last of us working with each other, but Ron bought out Taylor Honey Co. of Montana – the deal closed on January 1st this year and Ron took over the 3,000 colony almond contract that Paul Taylor had with us. Our latest iteration was a shot-gun marriage that has been cordially dissolved by mutual consent; it was probably destined to fail — irreconcilable differences. Don’t feel bad for Ron – he has plenty of almond options for his bees. I’ll miss working with Ron Spears. And I really miss Paul Taylor.
Paul Taylor and Taylor Honey Co.
Paul Taylor is the son of Master beekeeper (some would say Legendary beekeeper) Wade Taylor. Wade was one of the first beekeepers to sign on with us years ago. Wade later turned Taylor Honey Co. over to his two sons, Paul and Steve. Steve succumbed, prematurely, to bone cancer a few years ago but worked right up to the end (true grit!). Until Paul sold the business this year, Taylor Honey Co. was consistently one of our top suppliers of quality bees. Taylor Honey Co. was a first-class outfit in many different ways, and I feel honored to have worked with them.
Welcome Home, Steve Wernett
Steve Wernett is another of our all-time top bee suppliers, and, like Ron Spears, a great guy to boot. Steve learned beekeeping from Keith Mobley, an old-school beekeeper and our top supplier for a number of years until he passed away, way too soon. In over 20 years, we have never found a sub-par colony in the roughly 600 colonies Steve delivers to us each year. Steve is an avid surfer from Orange, CA, about 25 miles from the beach. This past December Steve passed out in the ocean and had to be rescued by wife, Melinda. Steve was still out after being taken to local hospital, diagnosed with a heart condition and deliberately put into a coma. Steve woke up a few weeks later and after an extensive re-hab, was able to accompany son Spencer (who dropped out of college to help his dad) trucking bees to almond orchards (Spencer was born shortly after Steve brought us bees for the first time). Steve now has a pacemaker to prevent future incidents and is chomping at the bit to get back to full-time bee work. A possible upside here is that Spencer might carry on the family tradition.
The New Almond-Bee Book
Stephanie Hsia has put out a great little book, The Almond and the Bee (now available on line, Google the author, title + blurb). Superb illustrations, graphics, layout and content. Only $9, with $2 of each purchase going to either the Xerces Society or Project ApisM. Ask about quantity discounts (I purchased 50 copies to distribute to classrooms and others). This book might set Ms. Hsia on the path to becoming a Super Achiever (if she’s not there already).
Almond Pollination vs. Blueberry Pollination
Almonds require one to two colonies per acre for the 2 to 3 week February blooming period. Almond pollen, with a protein content of 25%, is one of the most nutritious of all pollens collected by honey bees. Bee larvae thrive on almond pollen, producing, fat, healthy, long-lived adult bees. Colony populations increase during almond bloom to the point where many are ready to swarm when bloom is over. Most beekeepers split their almond colonies in March to make up for winter losses and to maintain colony numbers. Rental fees for good almond colonies are around $200/colony. Because almonds can only be successfully grown in certain limited areas like our Central Valley, almond prices should remain strong, and bee rental fees for almonds should be a reliable source of income for beekeepers for many years to come.
Blueberries require up to 6 colonies per acre for the 3 to 4 week blooming period in May and June. With a protein content of only 14%, blueberry pollen is one of the least nutritious pollens collected by honey bees (corn pollen is 15% protein). Bee colony strength and health deteriorate during blueberry pollination and, after leaving blueberries, colonies require considerable care and feeding to rehabilitate them to their pre-pollination condition. Some feel that spending significant time on blueberries sets bee colonies up for CCD. Rental fees for blueberries are around $100/colony. Unlike almonds, blueberries can be successfully cultivated in many different areas both in the U.S. and worldwide. Some predict a crash in blueberry prices in coming years, if not this year.
The Independence Variety
There are now several thousand acres of Independence almonds in California varying in age from 1 to 6 years. Acreage may reach 50,000 in a few years (California now has 850,000 acres of bearing almonds). Independence yields have been good (a Kern County orchard looks loaded, this year). Self-fertile Independence trees should get by with half a bee colony per acre but the main reason growers plant Independence is not to save on bee costs, but to be able to carry on all orchard operations at one time, rather than timing each input (harvest, pest and disease control, et al) to individual varieties. Independence nuts were touted to be almost equal to Nonpareil (the premium variety that commands the highest price). There are now indications that Independence nuts might not be as good as advertised. Many growers are currently adopting a “wait and see” attitude before planting Independence trees.
Why China Will Never Surpass the U.S.
“China conspicuously lacks the ingredient that has made the U.S. unique – an openness towards immigrants. China can draw on a talent pool of 1.3 billion people but the U.S. can draw on the world’s 7 billion.” Bryan Walsh, Time, March 23, 2015, p.26.
The Soccer Field
We picked up a new almond orchard this year just west of the hardscrabble town of Lost Hills and I had the opportunity to see the soccer field that the Resnicks (Paramount Farming) donated to the community. It’s a state-of-the-art field, and makes one wonder why the oil companies that for many years extracted considerable wealth from the land surrounding Lost Hills hadn’t done something like this long ago. Those oil companies have a lot deeper pockets than the Resnicks (true!).
Paramount Farming CEO, Joe MacIlvaine to Retire (in 18 months)
According to the April 8th Bakersfield Californian “The global farming Company has picked Rob Yraceburu, a long-time executive with Wells Fargo and a graduate of Fresno State, to succeed MacIlvaine when he retires in 18 months. Yraceburu will join the company in May and work on a transition plan with MacIlvaine. When Yraceburu takes over, MacIlvaine will head special projects for the company.” Mr. MacIlvaine has been a friend of the bee industry, and it is hoped that he will continue to have input on bee matters after he retires.
And Then There Were None?
The rapidly shrinking pool of deniers of man-made climate change is putting increased and long-needed emphasis on the steps needed to alter current trends. There are no easy answers.
“A person meditating on compassion for others becomes the first beneficiary” The Dalai Lama
New Front-Runner in 2016?
I try to refrain from injecting politics into my newsletters, but I believe that all beekeepers should be aware of a candidate that may well be our next President, based on the main plank in his platform: “I will sign an edict declaring that there will be only one charge cord for all brands of all electronic devices – phones, computers, tablets, music devices, cameras and everything else. Just like all electrical appliances have used the same two-prong cord that plugs into the same two-hole outlet for the past 100 years, so too shall there be only one charge cord that will plug into the same hole of every digital device from this day on.” Michael Moore in The Nation April 6, 2015, p.136. There is already considerable groundswell support for Mr. Moore’s candidacy.
The Nut Festival – Saturday, May 9th, 9AM to 5PM, Bakersfield
This event, at the Bakersfield museum gets bigger and better each year (now in its third year). If you’re near Bakersfield on May 9th, stop by – lots of games, booths, exhibits, food, family fun.
Stay in Touch
Let us know how you and your bees are doing as the days, weeks, months roll by. Call anytime to see how things are doing on the almond front. Have a bountiful honey year. Thanks for your almond efforts this year and I hope to work with you next year – in fact, I’m counting on it.