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Surge in Almonds Makes for Busy Bees

The price of hives is up and supply is down just as growers in the state's $1.19-billion industry are increasing their acres of the profitable nut.

March 01, 2004|From Associated Press

SACRAMENTO — A surge in the production of almonds, the biggest crop requiring honeybees for pollination and one of the few crops farmers consider a money maker, has created a bee shortage in California.

The prices farmers pay for the hives they need to pollinate their crops has gone up this year. And tiny, bee-killing mites have been cutting into the bee supply.

"The beekeepers are in charge now," said Jay Valov, ranch manager for Maddox Farms near Fresno, who found himself without honeybees for his almond trees in December.

Along with increased almond acreage and the mite problem, good honey prices and fall wildfires in Southern California have contributed to the bee shortage, driving hive prices up and highlighting the importance of the often overlooked pollinator.

More than 1 million honeybee hives are needed to pollinate the 530,000 acres of almond groves that line the Central Valley, making up California's $1.19-billion almond industry and producing 80% of the world's supply.

Every year, beekeepers drive from states such as North Dakota, Washington and Colorado to supplement the state's 440,000 resident beehives.

When the trees bloom in late February or early March, growers must hustle to get the hives -- two per acre -- into the orchards to transfer pollen from one pale pink blossom to another.

Getting hives in place can mean the difference between a good crop and disaster, growers said.

"In our operation there is definitely a shortage of bees," said Lyle Johnston, president of the American Honey Producers Assn. and a beekeeper who operates from Madera and Rocky Ford, Colo.

"We turned people away, and we're still getting calls," said Johnston, who said he had a waiting list with requests for 8,000 hives, although he thought most growers had eventually been able to get what they needed.

The profitability of almond growing -- a pound sells for about $1.50 -- has spurred the number of acres used for almond farming, said Mel Machado of the Blue Diamond Growers, an almond collective.

In 2002, the nut topped the list of the state's most profitable agricultural exports, according to the Almond Board of California.

"There aren't a whole lot of things in agriculture that people can make money off of, and you can't blame a person for wanting more acreage," said Gene Brandi, a beekeeper in Los Banos, Calif., and legislative chairman for the California State Beekeepers Assn.

The lack of global competition makes almonds so profitable, experts said.

Acres of almond trees have increased steadily since 1983, when bearing acres totaled 360,000. In 1993, bearing acres were just more than 400,000, and in 2003, they numbered 530,000, according to the Almond Board.

Acreage is likely to keep going up because almonds are "one of the few bright spots in the agricultural industry," said Joe Traynor, a Bakersfield-based bee broker and 30-year industry veteran.

"I'm sure it will be worse next year. I think this year was kind of a wake-up call," said Valov of Maddox Farms.

Valov eventually got his hands on hives for his 1,000 acres of almond trees, and says he felt lucky to get them at $54 apiece -- up from $44 last year.

Almonds are the biggest crop by far requiring beehives in the country, Traynor said. Because so many hives are needed at once so early in the year -- the almond crop is the first to come to bloom -- beekeepers end up renting the hives for half as much, or even giving them away free during the cherry and apple blooms that follow.

California's bee shortage isn't likely to affect its other crops, because if beekeepers can meet the demand of the almond growers, they'll be able to satisfy the state's other commodities, too.

Along with the growth in acres producing almonds, parasitic mites have contributed to the bee shortage, as the mites feed on developing bees, shortening their lives and leading to smaller and weaker hives.

The mites are also becoming resistant to the treatment used to help control them, said Bob Seifert, a beekeeper in Wheatland and past president of the California State Beekeepers Assn.

Another factor could be high honey prices that have tempted beekeepers in the warmer southern states to stay home, where their bees can produce honey in the early spring, Brandi said.

Compounding the problem are the hives consumed in the fires that burned 750,000 acres in Southern California last year, Traynor said. He estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 hives were destroyed.

Honeybees pollinate about one-third of the human diet and over 50 different agricultural crops valued at more than $20 billion a year in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson.

But while they are enormously important to the country's agriculture, it's not "a given that we're going to have adequate numbers of strong colonies for pollination," said Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman, research leader at the center.

Beekeepers agree, noting a downward trend in the number of those practicing their trade and fewer young people going into the business.

"People think, oh, honey bees, what's the big deal," DeGrandi-Hoffman said. "They don't realize how much of their diet depends on moving these honey bees into blooming crops."

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