Bee shortage impacts pollination
Issue Date: January 5, 2005
By Christine Souza
Wheatland beekeeper Bob Seifert is gearing up for the almond pollination season in early spring. With pollination right around the corner for almonds and a number of other crops, growers and beekeepers share a mutual concern about a potential bee shortage aggravated by a destructive bee pest.
Both groups point to research as the answer to eliminating the Varroa mite, an external parasite of the honeybee whose population increases until it kills the entire bee colony.
The California State Beekeepers Association and the Almond Board of California have researchers working to find solutions to the Varroa mite problem, including U.S. Department of Agriculture experts at the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson, Ariz.
"Our lab and all of the USDA bee labs are working very hard to get new solutions to the Varroa mite issue. Once we get that under control the colonies will be more predictable," said Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman, research leader at the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center. "We have several alternative compounds at the lab that look very promising. With one of these compounds we hope that we are just about a year away from having something."
Since a possible solution to the Varroa mite issue is not expected for the coming pollination season, it leaves beekeepers and growers in a tough spot for 2005.
The window of time to reserve beehives this season is becoming smaller and smaller. Growers who have not done so may be left without honeybees, a crucial part of the business of growing almonds.
"Right now we are trying to take care of our regular customers who cannot find any more bees," said Wheatland beekeeper Bob Seifert, a director of the California State Beekeepers Association.
Many growers reserved hives several months ago, so trying to locate hives in California and out of state now could be a difficult if not impossible task because of this year's bee shortage. This is why almond growers and beekeepers cringed at recent news that a truck spilled 12 million honeybees on a Las Vegas freeway after it struck a ramp. The bees were en route to California for almond pollination.
Colleen Aguiar of the Almond Board of California said about 480 hives were lost in the spill. The lost bees could have pollinated 240 acres of almonds and led to production of 400,000 pounds of almonds, with an approximate value of $650,000.
During 2004, Varroa mite infestations caused much trouble for beekeepers by invading bee colonies and killing the bees, spreading diseases and reducing honey production. Hive losses have reached 50 percent in some cases.
"The crisis that we are in right now is due to the Varroa mite. There is nothing that we can do right now. The pest strips that we insert in the hives are no longer effective," Seifert said.
Eric Mussen of the University of California, Davis Department of Entomology, who is a member of the California Farm Bureau Federation bee commodity advisory committee, said beekeepers are running out of the tools necessary to fight the Varroa mite.
"We went through Apistan and now we are basically getting to the tail end of CheckMite+ where most people say, 'I put the strips in the hive and nothing happened,' Mussen said. "Now we have a serious problem because there is no third magic bullet. Mite numbers are just growing and growing."
Growers experienced a shortage of bees during the 2004 pollination season due to beehive thefts, drought experienced in California and out of state, and an increase in honey prices.
It is estimated that beekeepers in California have between 475,000 and 500,000 beehive colonies. To pollinate California's almond acreage, it is estimated that it takes more than 1 million colonies. This means more than half of the necessary bees are brought from out of state.
The state's $1.189 billion almond crop is entirely dependent on honeybee pollination and growers are responsible for more than half the world's almond production. Some other crops dependent on honeybee pollination include apples, avocados, cherries, cucumbers, melons and sunflowers.
Since almond acreage has increased each year for almost 10 years, the demand for beehives has become greater.
Arbuckle almond grower Joe Marsh, a Colusa County Farm Bureau director, was able to reserve bees in October and said many other growers are still looking for bees.
"A lot of guys are out hustling and looking for hives right now that should have been doing it sooner. I heard back in October that a bee shortage would happen next season,Ëœ Marsh said. "I think the shortage is a little bit of an issue but I think it is more of an opportunity. The bee guys have some leverage to bring their prices up on the bees. The price of hives has basically doubled.Ëœ
Beekeepers say that the price of pollination for 2005 is as high as it ever has been. The average price to rent a hive for pollination for almost five weeks in 2003 was about $45 per hive, and during the 2004 pollination season, the average cost was about $48 per hive. To rent a hive for the 2005 season, the price is expected to reach $75 to $85 per hive.
The increase in cost to rent the beehives, Marsh said, could cause some almond growers to get into the bee business.
"I know guys that wanted to increase their hives and because of the increased cost, growers are going down in numbers on the amount of hives per acre,Ëœ Marsh said. "Let's say you just get three hours of really good weather, you want to get as many bees out there working as you can. If you only have two beehives working per acre, they are not going to cover much ground.Ëœ
Almond acreage has increased steadily since 1984, when bearing acres totaled 381,000. In 1994, bearing acres were 433,000 and in 2004, they numbered 530,000 according to the Almond Board.