Challenges face almond farmers and beekeepers

Issue Date: January 28, 2009
Christine Souza

John Miller of Miller honey farms in Newcastle says beekeepers and almond farmers will have to work together closely to overcome "unprecedented challenges" facing pollination this year.

A reduction in almond prices, limited water availability, increased production costs and the declining health of bees may all influence what happens during this year's almond bloom, impacting both almond growers and beekeepers.

Speaking at the Almond Board of California annual meeting last month, board member Dan Cummings warned his audience that this spring could be "dicey" for almond growers and beekeepers alike.

"Bees are competing for almond growers' money the same as water, fertilizer, fuel and all of our other inputs, at a time when the price of almonds has dropped. So we will be rationalizing where we go with our bees," said Cummings, who farms almonds in Chico and is co-owner of a full-service beekeeping operation. "We will be fallowing some other crops to direct water to almonds and perhaps abandoning almond orchards."

As a result, he said he believes many growers may reduce the amount of honeybee colonies that they place into the orchards for pollination during bloom, to save money.

"Our stocking rates will be declining," Cummings said.

For beekeepers, he suggested that they have contracts in place, maintain an open dialogue with their almond growers and hope for rainfall.

Fourth-generation beekeeper John Miller of Miller Honey Farms in Newcastle said working closely with his almond growers will be key.

"Bee guys and almond guys face unprecedented challenges. Working together, they will continue to produce 80 percent of the world's almonds profitably and competitively," said Miller, who supplies beehives to almond growers in Stanislaus and Merced counties. "We invest in relationships with the growers. My business plan relies on customers that I can rely on for years."

Miller, who winters bees in Idaho as well as Northern California, plans to begin moving bees into almond orchards just prior to the start of bloom next week. He said some growers are reducing the number of hives per acre, but others are increasing the number.

"Some growers are responding to falling nut prices by shaving marginal amounts of hives per acre," he said. "Growers recognize that strong beehives collect an exponential amount of pollen. An eight-frame hive will gather 100 percent more pollen than a six-frame hive, so quality hives remain a primary motivator of almond guys."

For Miller, delivering a quality hive to his almond growers is a top priority.

"We check every hive before it goes into the almonds," Miller said. "A lot of what happens in January and February depends on what happened last July and August. We were in a nice spot last summer in North Dakota and bees went into winter in good shape."

Given challenges to hive health due to pests, diseases and poor nutrition, beekeepers are paying more attention to the quality of their bees than ever before. Lack of water is also an issue for beekeepers, who must now spend more money on supplements to feed bees due to lack of natural forage. Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon where the bees vanish from the hive, leaving it basically empty except for the queen and a few attendants, is still plaguing beekeepers. So are such problems as the Varroa mite and fungal diseases known as Nosema ceranae and Nosema apis.

Eric Mussen, University of California, Davis, entomologist, noted that beekeepers have experienced some bee losses, but it is too early to tell what the overall impacts will be to this year's pollination season.

"Beekeepers are most concerned about the health of their bees, whether they operate one colony in the backyard or thousands of colonies throughout the country," Mussen said. "Money is important because it costs nearly $150 to keep a commercial colony alive and productive over a year. Without that income the bees would be lost and the beekeeper would be out of business."

To make sure that a beehive is ready for pollination, beekeepers recommend that growers work with them to inspect the hives.

Regardless of hive quality, almond growers say they may not be able to afford the average price of $150 per colony for an eight-frame beehive. Several years ago, almond growers were paying about $50 per hive.

Kern County almond grower Dennis Atkinson, who serves as senior vice president of agriculture and water resources at Tejon Ranch Co., confirms that growers in his region are reducing pollination services.

"Some guys are cutting back on pollination because of the water situation. Some almond growers don't think they are going to have enough water to make a crop, so they are shaving back the amount of bees per acre," Atkinson said. "You have to have the bees, so instead of putting two and a half or two and a quarter hives per acre, maybe you are putting one and three quarters or two hives per acre."

The number of hives required per acre for pollination, Atkinson said, varies depending on the weather during bloom and the strength of the hive.

Almond growers are now faced with the lowest price they have earned for almonds since the 2001-2002 crop year. In addition to the low price, Cummings said almond growers face high production costs.

The wild card in what happens for growers this season, Cummings said, is water availability and cost.

"To optimally farm almonds, the amount of water required depends on where you are and what is available. It costs anywhere from $300 to $400 per acre-foot to as much as over $1,000 per acre-foot," he said. "Approximately one-third of California almonds are affected (by water shortages) in the southern San Joaquin Valley. The conclusion is you will see more almond orchards abandoned this year and new plantings will virtually stop."

California's No.1 tree nut crop, almonds comprise 660,000 bearing acres, so even if the demand for pollination decreases, many almond growers will still require the service.

"We are still going to need a ton of bees," Miller said. "Supply has been chasing demand for about five years in almonds, but I don't think it will catch up this year. It might get to equilibrium."

Of the approximately 1.2 million beehives needed to pollinate California almonds, in-state beekeepers supply about half, with the remainder of hives supplied by out-of-state beekeepers.

Following the almond bloom, beehives are transported to farms across the West to pollinate a wide variety of crops, everything from apples to zucchini. Common California crops that are pollinated include apples, cherries, plums, melons, legumes, vine crops, alfalfa seed and other seed crops.

To supplement bee numbers due to the loss of bees as a result of Colony Collapse Disorder, in 2004 the United States relaxed restrictions on importing bees from Australia to allow queens and packaged bees into the U.S. Late last year, the Australian government stopped those shipments, saying it could no longer be certain the country was free of a smaller, aggressive bee that has infested areas near the Great Barrier Reef. Early this month, the U.S.Department of Agriculture decided to permit the bee shipments with some precautions.

Many California beekeepers concerned about maintaining the health of their colonies voiced misgivings on this issue as part of the California Farm Bureau Federation Bee Advisory Committee meeting in Sacramento last week. CFBF committees serve in an advisory capacity to CFBF and its board of directors. The committee requested that Farm Bureau monitor and respond as necessary whenever bee imports pose disease or pest risks to U.S. honeybees.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.