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Bee Happy

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If high honey prices don't keep out-of-state beekeepers home making honey next spring, California almond growers should have an adequate supply of rental hives available for pollination. This is the assessment of Eric Mussen, extension entomologist, University of California, Davis.

According to Mussen, mite problems have ebbed for the time being, colony strengths are good, and beekeepers are enjoying better times than they have seen in many years _ all of which should add up to a good year for crops needing the services of honey bees.

Almond Contracts A Draw

"The local bees _ the half million colonies that don't go out of California _ are in pretty good shape and should be available," he says. "The question is: How much is going to be brought in from the rest of the country?"

On that point, timing works in almond growers' favor, Mussen says. "There are few things that a beekeeper can do to make money as early in the season as renting hives for the almond bloom," he explains. "The opportunity to earn $35 to $40 per colony will probably lure beekeepers back to California next spring, even though they may now be thinking it would be easier to just stay home and produce a good honey crop, now that the price of honey has doubled."

Every year the roster of beekeepers who come to California for the almond bloom changes, he cautions. "Many of the same people come, a few who used to come don't, but a few who didn't do," he said, "and so far we've been able to meet the demand. Right now, I don't have any reason to believe that we are not going to be able to meet the demand this coming season."

Future Less Certain

Future blooms, however, could have a less optimistic prospect, he warns. "I wonder, as the acres increase and if the number of beekeepers across the country continues to decline, if there will be enough colonies to go around."

Higher honey prices may improve the situation over the long haul, Mussen hopes. "Maybe the better prices for honey will actually increase the sizes of the operations that are left or entice some individuals in," he said.

The price of honey climbed from around 42 cents a pound wholesale to about 85 cents in recent years as a result of several developments. American beekeepers finally got some regulatory relief from subsidized Chinese honey that had been coming into the U.S. for around 30 cents a pound. Chinese beekeepers found that they couldn't make money at 30 cents a pound either. Many left the business or developed a local market for their product.

China had never been much of a honey consumer, Mussen says, but demand for it has increased. As a result of less production and higher consumption, the world soon found itself with a shortage of honey. The inevitable result: higher prices.

While higher honey prices in the U.S. could help the bee business get healthy again, it may also work to the disadvantage of some crops that rely on bees for pollination, says Mussen. "It won't have much effect on almonds because they bloom early in the season, but given the choice of producing a honey crop and making as much money doing that as doing something else, some beekeepers would probably prefer the honey crop. They would have less exposure to pesticides and the aggravations that come with hauling bees from crop to crop."

Cooperative Relationship

Mussen points out that the almond industry and beekeepers have developed a mutually-beneficial relationship over the years that has helped both industries remain viable. "The two industries rely on each other," he says. "When times have been tough for beekeepers, the almond industry has gone along with price increases in order to keep the beekeepers healthy. And there have been years when almond prices were low that the beekeepers didn't raise their prices, even though they felt an increase was justified, because the almond growers were not doing that well. It has been an interesting give and take."

Disease Under Control

The mite problems that nearly devastated the beekeeping industry in recent years has finally abated, says Mussen. Mite counts arelower now because most of the problem colonies of feral bees and poorly maintained domestic hives have died off. These colonies served as reservoirs of mites that constantly re-infested treated commercial hives. Consequently, Mussen notes, mite treatments work better now and beekeepers are getting good mite control over the long-term.

The other perceived threat to commercial colonies, the Africanized honey bee, has not yet made any significant inroads into California's bee populations. The latest AHB finds were around watering holes in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park near San Diego. Scientists believe these finds indicate AHB movement into California from northwestern Mexico rather than from across the Colorado River.

At least for the immediate future, an adequate supply of commercial bees for the almond bloom appears to be on the horizon.