Ray Olivarez says his bee business is not typical. He owns and operates Olivarez Honeybees near the Glenn County, Calif. community of Orland.
Though he pretty much does it all – rearing queen honeybees for commercial sale, selling package bees to other beekeepers and leasing bees for pollination – his success is seen in his sustainability.
With annual losses in the range of 10 percent, versus the 30-50 percent reportedly common throughout the rest of the bee industry, he’s got a point.
“We try to keep our die-off under 10 percent,” Olivarez says. “I consider those dates from Sept. 1 to Feb. 1. Those are the bees that would make it to the almonds.
“This year we were about 7 percent.”
Controlling his overwintering losses and other bee mortality issues are part of a holistic approach that includes how he breeds the queens and the choices he makes pertaining to pollination.
“We don’t have any problems with our cells anymore because they’re being fed clean pollen,” he said.
The Royal Process
Olivarez grafts about 4,000 cells of queen bees per day during a short season in the spring. Larvae are inserted into food-grade plastic containers, which he says is a cleaner and safer way to raise queens in than in bees wax because of the chemical residues found in bee's wax.
From the cells, the tiny insects are moved into a queen-less hive. The worker bees already in the hive, wanting to raise a queen to sustain the hive, react by secreting a substance called “royal jelly.” This serves as a food source to developing larvae to create a queen.
Olivarez produces up to 45 queen cells per frame.
Once the developing larvae are fed royal jelly, and just before they hatch, the queen cells are pulled and transferred to a miniature hive called a “nuc.”
Olivarez breeds several varieties of bees, including Italian and Carniolan queens. He looks for traits that will make the bees successful and extend the life of the queen. These traits include honey production, gentleness, and tolerance or resistance to disease and mites.
“The other half of this process is the drone and what line he comes from,” Olivarez continues.
In both cases, bees are tested and selected for the best traits. Queens can be sampled for how many times they were bred and the number of eggs produced, and the drones can be tested for semen viability.
Best bees possible
To produce the best bees possible, breeder queens are selected from colonies thriving on a daily basis, he says. This is important because many beekeepers must re-queen their hives – purchase a new queen because the former one died – once a year, Olivarez says.
“Queens used to live four or five years,” he said.
Along with his California operation, Olivarez raises queen honeybees on the big island of Hawaii. He is one of three commercial beekeepers there to produce queens. He collects honey as a result of management practices in Hawaii, though he says honey is more of a byproduct of raising queens than it is something he intentionally goes after.
Queen honeybees are shipped in small containers with two to five worker bees that serve as attendants to the queen. They are packaged with a small carbohydrate food source and anything that may absorb water for the bees to drink while in transit.
“We have a commitment to our customers to raise the healthiest queen bees possible, pure and simple,” he said.
Though honeybee queens can be produced year-round in Hawaii, half of the nation’s queen bees are produced in northern California. Because of the California weather Olivarez only produces queens during a short window of time in the spring.
Olivarez also sells packaged bees domestically. These are two- and three-pound packages of bees with a newly-mated queen. He ships these bees from late March through early May each year.
Raising queens is not done by many beekeepers because of the labor involved, he says.
Olivarez employs about 80 people between his Hawaiian and California operations. Many of these people help to produce the queens. He also employs beekeepers to tend to some of his 16,000 colonies.
What’s happening to them?
Rising bee deaths across the United States – a condition under an umbrella term known as “colony collapse disorder” – has been linked to chemical pesticides, namely one class of insecticides called “neonicotinoids,” but not for reasons commonly reported.
One year Olivarez said he lost 25 percent of his queen cells (the maturing larvae used to make queens). What he discovered was the pollen in those hives used to create the queens was loaded with an insect growth regulator.
“We do this enough; we know there’s a correlation,” he said.
“If we have 25 percent of our queen cells dying before they hatch, what’s happening with the ones that make it? Did they get sub-lethal doses?” he continued.
Each year Olivarez leaves about 1,000 honeybee colonies completely out of the annual almond pollination period across California. Though the economic gains of leasing this number of hives could be significant, Olivarez believes the benefits to the sustainability of his bee operation is greater.
Those hives are sent to foothill locations, far away from any blooming almond trees, as an attempt to get at least part of his brood away from the chemicals used by growers during the bloom period.
It’s from those bees and the pollen produced by them that Olivarez will rear the queen honeybees he produces for commercial sale and his own needs.
“That’s why we leave out 1,000 colonies from almond pollination – so we can use the pollen from those to nourish queen production.”
Olivarez admits that this year’s “flash bloom” – a phenomenon where almond trees blossom then drop their pedals in a period of days instead of weeks – could have benefitted greatly from the additional bees.
Even so, Olivarez did not want the added risk.
“That’s the pollen and the brood source we raise our queens from,” he said. “We’re providing queens for all of those beekeepers who are coming back to the almonds next year,” he continued.
Olivarez is keen on the environment in which he places his bees. To that end, good foraging opportunities are important.
That’s why each year he takes his bees to Montana, a move that takes his bees out of California’s summer crop pollination and the chemicals associated with that.
“We were losing a quarter of our bees due to sprays and lack of forage, so we don’t do summer pollination anymore.”
Moving bees to Montana each year gives him the forage he needs to keep his bees healthy. Bees will feed on dryland and irrigated alfalfa, white and yellow sweet clover and “just a plethora of wildflowers.”
Cottonwood trees can also be a good source for honeybees because of a resinous substance collected from tree buds the bees use to fill crevices and seal honeycombs.
“We’re trying to put our bees in the best environment we can all the time,” he said.
The lack of good foraging opportunities is the most significant issue facing beekeepers today, Olivarez says.
Still, that doesn’t negate the problems beekeepers have with pests and diseases that can claim colonies.
“Bees are just like people; if you have a poor diet or your immune system is weak you’re susceptible to viruses and other illnesses,” he says.
One of the hot-topic issues for beekeepers is the Varroa Mite, a tiny parasite that feeds on bees and can transmit diseases to her. The Varroa Mite has been found in North American and Hawaii.
Another challenge to his Hawaiian operation is the small-hive beetle, which has doubled labor input costs and added to the challenges of queen production in Hawaii. The South also has the small-hive beetle, he said.
Fortunately, northern California doesn’t have issues with the small-hive beetle because of the relatively low humidity there.
Anymore, Olivarez says good beekeepers “must think a year out” when it comes to the various issues and challenges that can affect bee health and success.
He said last year’s heavy bee losses that were reported were “kind of predictable a year in advance” and had largely to do with the Varroa Mite.
“Mites are a vector to a lot of things,” he said.