Honeybee shortage hard on almond crop

By Carolyn Barbre

Cary's Honey Farm Inc. in Lindsay is one of the largest bee keeping outfits in the county. Proprietor Norm Cary has 8,000 hives producing 2,750 55-gallon drums of honey and pollinating millions of dollars worth of crops annually.

This year a surge in the production of almonds, which require honeybees for pollination, has created a bee shortage in California. Almonds are one of the few crops that are considered profitable by farmers, at $150 per pound. Acreage has grown from 360,000 in 1983 to 530,000 today.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) reported on January 23, 2004 a preliminary crop size of 1.020 billion pounds for the 2003 California almond crop. The Noncitrus Fruits and Nuts Preliminary Summary report shows a 6 percent decrease from the 2002 crop of 1.084 billion pounds and a 2 percent increase from the June 2003 objective estimate of 1 billion pounds. The report is based on 530,000 bearing acres of almonds.

Back in November the California Almond Board stated, "The good news about almonds doesn't stop at the four years of record shipments, last season's unprecedented billion pound harvest or the recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration health claim touting the benefits of consuming almonds and other nuts to lower cholesterol. The industry received more good news last week when the Almond Board of California recommended to the USDA a reduction in its grower-enacted federal marketing order assessment on the marketable kernel pound weight of almonds from 2.5 cents to 2 cents for the 2003 crop."

Cary said that since fall 1999, U.S. bee colonies have dropped from 2.25 million to 1.75 million because of a pest infestation which carries bee viruses. More than 1 million honeybee hives, at two per acre, are needed to pollinate the 530,000 acres of almond groves that line the Valley. If you go to the Almond Board website you can actually see groves in Denair, Modesto, Coalinga and Atwater via webcams.

Cary said there's been a problem with parasitic mites that feed on developing bees, shortening their lives and leading to smaller and weaker hives. He said the mites have become resistant to some of the materials they have been using to control them. "We're scrambling to find a new product that will work."

Cary said some almond growers had trouble finding bees or had to pay a higher price, $65-$75 per colony where the average is $55-$56. "We maintained 100 percent, but hasn't been easy. We worked very hard at it and spent a lot more time running to control everything."

Cary, who has been in the bee business commercially for 29 years, since his teens, said, "Thankfully we've been able to maintain some pretty good strong colonies. Some of my competition has had a pretty difficult time of it." He said there were other real strong ones, but also some pretty poor ones, "a real mixed bag."

Cary, who was president of the Tulare Bee Keepers Association for the last two years, said the price of pollination will be going up next year to make up for the cost of keeping strong and healthy hives. He said Kern County is averaging $55 to $57 a hive and will be going up to $60-$67 in 2005 while Tulare County which averages $54-$55 will probably go up to $58-$59.

In Tulare County the bees are used to pollinate plums and berries. Then when the orange blossoms come, the bees start making honey.

"I think during orange blossom time there's over 300 beekeepers who come in from all over the U.S." he said. "We've been able to maintain a strong prosperous business with a lot of hard work and God's blessing."

Honeybees pollinate about one-third of the human diet and more than 50 different crops valued at more than $20 billion a year in the U.S. according to the USDA.

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