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Beekeepers launch California almond pollination season

Los Banos beekeeper Gene Brandi, who handles nearly 2,000 colonies at the peak of the season, says about half the colonies are from California and the rest come mostly from the upper Midwestern states but also from as far as Florida and Pennsylvania.

Brandi has been a beekeeper for the past quarter-century, and is chairman of the National Honey Board. He is a past president and current legislative chairman of the California Beekeepers Association. His business is about 60 percent from honey and beeswax and 40 percent from pollination fees.

The supply of colonies, he says, appeared to be adequate as of early February. "Last year we had a bit of a shortage after some Texas bees were turned away, but at this point I can’t foresee any major shortage."

Bees are imported from the other states because California’s foothill, coastal, mountain and desert areas can support only about a half million colonies on a year-round basis.

"Even in a good, wet, El Nino year that would be good for honey production, we still have a hard time finding enough honey-producing locations for the bees we have," he says.

Pollination season

The almond pollination season from early February to mid-March is the main event in the bee industry. The rest of the year, which Brandi says is their toughest time, beekeepers work hard to bring their colonies up to strength.

Some business comes from seed alfalfa, apples, plums, melons, cherries, citrus, or avocados, but the colonies are mostly placed in rangeland sites to forage on native vegetation such as sage, clover or eucalyptus.

To be ready, most beekeepers start moving colonies into almonds a couple of weeks before bloom is anticipated, balancing catching the onset of bloom with keeping the bees from wandering off before blossoms appear. "If we waited until 5 percent bloom to start moving them in we’d never get through in time," Brandi says.

Although the recent cold snap in the San Joaquin Valley may delay the almond bloom a bit, the normal colony placement schedule should intercept the bloom.

Bloom varies according to the almond varieties, traditional Nonpareil and Mission orchards flowering before the Butte and Padre orchards. But with the increased acreage of the later varieties the pollination season has been extended to later in March.

Brandi says he expects the price of pollination this year will be about the same as in 2001. The California State Beekeepers Association survey for the 2001 season showed an average cost of about $45 per colony. Almond pollination averages two colonies per acre.

Honeybees coming into California are subject to California Department of Food and Agriculture quarantine regulations to prevent entry of colonies contaminated with varroa or tracheal mites harmful to the bees.

Varroa mites reproduce in the honeybee brood cells and can rapidly decimate a colony. The bees have partial resistance to the mites. California beekeepers had some success in control with a fluvalinate, but the mites developed resistance to it. Three years ago they switched to coumaphos under a Section 19 registration, but the mites are reported showing resistance to it too.

Microscopic tracheal mites attack the respiratory systems of drone bees and shorten their longevity. Beekeepers have some control against mites with menthol or by using patties of shortening to prevent mites from attaching to the bees.

Imported fire ants

In recent years more quarantine attention has been given to imported fire ants, common pests in Southern states. If shipments are found to be contaminated, there is a protocol to destroy the ants, which can be carried on soil clinging to pallets.

Colonies contaminated with the ants were brought into California for several years before controls were in place. Now the industries in Texas and California cooperate to avoid spreading the ants with contaminated colonies.

The much-touted invasion of aggressive Africanized bees, first found in California in 1994 in Blythe, continues to be a public concern, and some such bees were found recently in Tulare County. However, Brandi, a member of the California Africanized Bee Steering Committee, says he isn’t overly concerned about them.

The tropically adapted Africanized bees tend to spread into suitable climates but reports from South America suggest they are possibly slowed in a transition zone with California’s European honeybees.

"Nobody knows for certain where it might be, but they may be approaching some natural limit, given the fact they have taken so long to move from Blythe to the southern San Joaquin Valley. To date, it has not been any big public health problem, but prudence and caution are always wise around bees."

Adopt gentler traits

He adds that according to DNA research at the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center at Tucson, Africanized bees in Arizona, while still more defensive, have taken some traits of the gentler European bees.

Statistics will soon be released by the National Agricultural Statistics Service for the honey production for the 2001 season, and the California average output is expected to be down perhaps 10 pounds from the 70 pounds per colony in 2000.

"The 2001 season for California was not a good honey production year," Brandi says. "Lots of our growers made only half the average, and some were below that. It depended on which area and the rainfall. It’s a lot like dryland farming."

The industry, he says, will see some impact from the state seed alfalfa acreage. It has been shrinking in recent years, from about 100,000 in 1999 to about 30,000 expected this year. Although he has been serving seed alfalfa growers in the Tranquillity area in the summer for years, some beekeepers avoid that crop because of its typical proximity to cotton and high potential for damage from pesticides. "It’s been a good source of cash flow for me for about half my bees, but I wouldn’t take all my bees to seed alfalfa," he adds.

Even though cotton growers, aware of the value of the sensitive bees, try to use milder, shorter residual chemicals and nighttime spraying, the risk remains.

Some California beekeepers prefer to move colonies in May to Idaho, Montana, or the Dakotas, where they remain until temperatures drop sharply in November.

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