Pacific Northwest apple pollination is inextricably linked with California almond pollination. Virtually every commercial beekeeper that supplies bees to Northwest apple orchards also pollinates California almond orchards in February and March.
The almond pollination season in any given year gives a reliable preview of what honeybee condition will be like for Northwest apple growers. The condition of honeybees in California almond orchards this year ranged from very poor to very good, as it does every year.
Problems with Colony Collapse Disorder (see "Causes of CCD") are making it increasingly difficult for beekeepers to supply strong, healthy colonies to almond growers. In spite of these problems, there have been many strong, populous colonies in almond orchards. Almond bloom was late this year—about ten days later than normal—which means a smaller gap between the end of almond bloom (about March 15 this year) and the start of apple bloom. However, this should still leave an ample window for timely bee deliveries to Northwest apple orchards. The window for deliveries to soft fruit orchards in southern areas will be narrower but should still be adequate for beekeepers with reliable truckers.
For most commercial beekeepers, almond pollination income is the big (and sometimes the sole) payday for the year. Rental prices ranged from $150 to $180 per colony for eight-frame or better colonies, about triple the price of five years ago. Although the money is good, the beekeeper's costs to supply eight-frame colonies in winter, especially with current CCD problems, take up a huge portion of that income (some figure as much as $125 per colony).
Extremely high almond pollination fees have caused all almond growers to think inside the box—the box, in this case, being the hive, or wooden structure that houses the colony. Renting eight-frame colonies for $160 each is usually cheaper on a per-acre basis than renting four-frame colonies at a much lower price, since fewer colonies are needed per acre. Many almond growers now hire independent inspectors to verify colony strength; some bee brokers provide this same service. There are few, if any, unsuspecting almond growers out there that a beekeeper might take advantage of—all growers are suspecting and all bee operations are suspect.
The general strength of bee colonies in almond orchards has improved in recent years because the bar for colony strength has been raised in synchrony with almond pollination rental fees. There are still, however, many colonies in almond orchards that do not meet the optimum eight-frame standard—there always have been and likely always will be. This is not a reflection on the competence of beekeepers, but more a measure of the difficulties that even good beekeepers are having in coming up with eight-frame colonies in February.
Colony strength at the end of almond bloom is usually about 25 percent higher than at the beginning. An eight-frame colony can become a ten-frame colony, and a four-framer can turn into a five-framer.
With eight-frame colonies, one colony per acre is ample for apple growers. Almond growers use two colonies per acre because they want a 50 percent set of blossoms (almonds are never thinned), while a commercial apple crop requires only a 5 percent set. If there is competing bloom within a mile of your orchard (or two miles, if it is an attractive bloom) you may want to use more than one colony per acre.
The vetting process that almond bees go through, and the early start they get on spring build-up, has significantly increased the strength of honeybee colonies in Northwest apple orchards over what it was before almond pollination became the major factor in the bee industry. Apple growers receive much stronger colonies today than they did 25 years ago. Apple growers should still pay close attention to colony strength since a beekeeper might split that ten-frame colony that comes out of almonds into two five-frame colonies—and he might want to rent his cull colonies (those that didn't make the grade for almonds) for apples.
Northwest apple growers today are getting stronger bee colonies than California almond growers, and they are getting them at the bargain prices of $40 to $50 per colony. Thirty years ago, virtually all Northwest apple orchards were pollinated with Northwest and northern California bees.
Today, thousands of bee colonies from Montana and North Dakota are used because beekeepers from these states look at apple orchards as welcome holding locations until their home states thaw out. Before almonds began using them, these bees would either be killed off in the winter or protected from freezing temperatures. Montana and North Dakota bees have exerted considerable downward pressure on Northwest pollination prices, to the benefit of apple growers and the detriment of Northwest beekeepers.
In the 1950s, California beekeepers were receiving $2 per colony for almond bees, and Washington beekeepers were getting $5 a colony for apple bees. In the 60s, the fees were $5 and $10 respectively. In the 50s and 60s, California beekeepers would look in awe at Washington apple pollination fees and dream about getting $10 a colony for almonds.
The increase in California's almond acreage from 100,000 acres to 600,000 acres today has completely changed U.S. beekeeping. Honey production is no longer profitable for beekeepers due to cheap imported honey, mainly from China and Argentina. Some beekeepers even consider honey production a nuisance, other than the food value for their bees. Many beekeepers today are interested solely in keeping their colonies alive from one almond pollination season to the next, a formidable task with today's problems.
You can now purchase a honeybee colony in late March, after almond bloom, for $125, significantly less than the almond grower pays for bee rental. Your problem then is: how do you keep the colony alive and healthy until the following February? Some beekeepers are considering killing off their colonies after almond bloom, taking most of the rest of the year off, then purchasing packages of bees from Australia (or the southeastern United States) in November or December, and installing them in their equipment, hoping the bees can increase sufficiently in strength to be rentable for almonds.
For most beekeepers, apple pollination income is only enough to defray the cost of keeping their bees alive for another month. Price-cutting by beekeepers to secure apple locations, and pressure by apple growers to lower pollination fees, have made apple pollination unprofitable for some beekeepers. The 1.2 million colonies exiting almond orchards in March has put apple growers in the driver's seat when it comes to pollination fees. In California, apple pollination fees are as low as $10 a colony, with some beekeepers placing truckload lots of bees near orchards at no charge. The California almond industry is, in essence, subsidizing the apple industry to the tune of millions of dollars saved annually in pollination fees. Be grateful.
Joe Traynor runs a pollination service for almond growers and beekeepers and is the author of three books: Almond Pollination Handbook, Ideas in Soil and Plant Nutrition, and Honey—The Gourmet Medicine.
Funding bee research
A fledgling, nonprofit organization devoted to bee research, called Project Apis M., is being supported by beekeepers and almond growers via donations of $1 per colony of bees rented. The organization's goal is to fund and direct research to improve the health and vitality of honeybee colonies while improving crop production. For more information, or to make a donation, go to the Web site at www.projectapism.org.