Producers lose hives to drought, smoke from wildfires
By TIM HEARDEN
DAVIS, Calif. -- A university apiculturist here warns that almond growers could face a shortage of honey bees as they seek to pollinate this year's crop of 800,000 acres.
The Golden State has only about 500,000 colonies available, but as many as 1.6 million are needed to provide two colonies per acre, said Eric Mussen of the University of California-Davis.
Because of winter losses, there may not be enough bees, Mussen said.
"We're going to be tight on numbers, and colony populations are not going to be what the growers hoped they would be," he said. "But we used to get decent crops anyway when we weren't pushing for as many colonies as we are now. A lot of it has to do with the weather."
Some bee producers across the country lost as many as 40 percent of their hives this winter, partly because drought conditions created a shortage of feed that prevented bees from making much honey during the summer, said Glenda Wooten, co-owner of Wooten's Golden Queens in Palo Cedro, Calif.
"It was a struggle," she said. "The bees just didn't set up well for the winter."
In California, smoke from wildfires also stifled bee activity in the summer. Wooten used supplemental feed to keep hives going, and only lost about 5 percent, she said.
However, some producers that maintained their colonies through the summer and fall suffered a sudden loss in January, Mussen said.
Malnutrition has been identified as a factor in colony collapse disorder, the mysterious malady first noticed in the winter of 2006 that has decimated one-third of the nation's bees every year, the university noted.
In CCD, the adult bees abandon the hive, leaving the queen, brood and food stores. Bee scientists have said CCD is caused by a variety of factors, including parasites, pesticides and diseases.
Almond growers pay about $150 per hive, and a typical healthy hive has about 16,000 bees, but some growers may do well this spring to get hives with 12,000, Mussen explained on a university blog. Already, beekeepers are telling brokers that they can't fulfill their contracts, he said.
Mussen said in an interview he's not concerned that some almond trees won't be pollinated as long as days remain sunny. Cold or wet weather could slow bee activity and hamper fertilization, too, he said.
"I haven't got a terrible fear for the crop at the moment," he said, "but I have a fear that things are really going to be tight."
University of California-Davis Department of Entomology: http://entomology.ucdavis.edu/