Jeff Jardine

February 19, 2014

Jeff Jardine: Lots of almond trees, drought and bee shortage could mean trouble in Valley

The amount of producing almond trees in Stanislaus County has nearly doubled over the past dozen years. To bloom, those trees will need America’s cheapest and arguably hardest-working labor force: bees. But if bee supplies don’t increase accordingly, many growers could find themselves out of luck.

This one is about the bees, and the bees only. If you want to include the birds, you’re on your own. Parental guidance suggested.

Take a drive just about anywhere in the Valley and foothills where almond trees now bloom. It is a sight to behold on these gorgeous summer days we’ve been having this February. Think of it as our region dressed in its Sunday best.

Pull off the road (safely, of course), roll down your window, turn off the engine, you’ll likely hear the buzzing of bees.

They constitute America’s cheapest and arguably hardest-working labor force. They accept authority – what the queen bee says goes – can’t ask for a minimum wage hike, never go on strike or take a sick day, and toil more hours each day than a CPA during tax season. In essence, they are migrant farmworkers that go from state to state, orchard to orchard, season to season and at the behest of their apiary contractors. Some come from as far away as Florida, Vermont and Maine.

Which brings us to the gist of today’s missive. The amount of producing almond trees in Stanislaus County has nearly doubled over the past dozen years – from about 88,000 acres in 2000 to more than 155,000 in 2012 – and the acreage has more than doubled if you count the millions of immature trees planted within the past couple of years. Eventually, those new trees – even the so-called self-fertilizing variety – will require at least some bees.

“They still have to have a vector to move the pollen within the trees,” said Orin Johnson, an apiary owner in Hughson. He serves on Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, state and national bee committees.

The demand, he said, will continue to increase in the coming years. But if bee supplies don’t increase accordingly, only growers who have longstanding relationships with apiaries can rest easy. Others could find themselves out of luck, their investments at risk. That might have happened here this year if not for the drought, which is leaving some Southern San Joaquin Valley farmers low and dry. With no guaranteed delivery of water, the Farm Bureau’s Tom Orvis said, those farmers don’t want their trees to pollinate. So they canceled their bee contracts. That freed up as many as 10,000 hives for growers to the north, Johnson said.

The surplus evaporated quickly, though. Johnson said he received calls from a few beekeepers offering bees for rent. A few days later, when some almond growers called looking for bees, there were none to be found. They’d all been snapped up. And that followed the winter of 2013, when there really weren’t enough bees to go around, he said.

“There was a shortage – an extremely tight supply,” he said.

In fact, one industry insider said the combination of so much new almond acreage, minimal water and the lack of bees has all of the makings of a “three-train wreck” for some growers. Already, the troublesome triumvirate is driving up bee rental prices. A couple of years ago, growers paid roughly $150 per hive, using two hives per acre. Now, some apiaries are charging as much as $200 per hive.

“The further south you go, the higher the prices go,” said Clyde Frings, a beekeeper in Riverbank. “We rent everything we’ve got.”

Apiaries throughout California for years have endured colony die-offs attributed to mites, pesticides and, now, the drought. Even in good years, they’ll lose 30 percent of a hive. In bad years, up to 70 percent. Theft is a problem every year.

Healthy bees stay that way by “foraging” on wildflowers and other plants that will bloom even in the winter as long as there is water. This year, there isn’t.

“The lack of water affects the natural plant growth bees need,” said Ann Beekman of Hughson, whose family farming business includes an apiary.

Instead, keepers fed their bees sugar-based concoctions and other foods to jump-start the process. In the summers, apiaries rely on flower-bearing crops such as alfalfa to keep their bees healthy and costs down. But the drought means farmers will grow less alfalfa and other plants that bees otherwise turn into the honey you find in jars on store shelves and at local fruit stands this year.

“And what will they grow instead? (Silage) corn,” Johnson said. “I’ve never in my life seen honey made out of corn.”

Nor will thousands of acres of almond trees produce their crops without bees.

It’s a fact of life.

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