Dr. Gordon Wardell, is the Director of Pollination Operations, Wonderful Orchards, and President of the South Valley Bee Club. Gordon has been a professional apiculturist for over 30 years and has woked with bees on three continents. Previously he was the extension apiculturist for the State of Maryland and he owned and directed S.A.F.E. Research and Development in Tucson, Arizona, a company dedicated to developing products for the bee industry. Gordon’s accomplishments include Mega-Bee, the honey bee nutritional supplement and years of research in the area of Varroa mite control, honey bee nutrition, fire ant monitoring, small hive beetle, Africanized Honey Bees, and many other topics. In addition, he has authored numerous scientific publications on honey bees.
Usually blissful and quiet the California almond orchards are abuzz today, not with bees but with the shakers and sweepers readying this year’s almond harvest. Most growers I have spoken with are optimistic about this year’s harvest. Early rains, more plentiful water and fair growing conditions have boosted this year’s harvest. The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) is forecasting a harvest of 2.25 billion pounds; this is up 5.1% from last year’s crop. The forecast is based on a record one million bearing acres. While the total harvest is up, the average yield per tree is down. This is likely due to the young trees cycling into the program. Also some growers are reporting a slight delay in harvest as the crop seems to be maturing slower than normal this year. Harvest was pushed back by as much as two weeks in some areas on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.
It has certainly been an unusual year. When the California almond bloom began in February, early rains made it difficult and nearly impossible for beekeepers to get colonies into the orchards and in some unfortunate instances those who did get their colonies into the orchards early had to watch their colonies float away in the floods in the northern parts of the production area. The 2017 bloom started rapidly but was soon slowed and extended due to cold temperatures that set in during the middle of the bloom. These cooler temperatures gave growers concern about the number of bee flight hours during the critical period of bloom. Some days only had one hour or less of potential flight weather. As the yields are reported, we will see if the premium price paid by some growers for larger colonies has paid off this year. Premiums for colonies larger than an eight frame average netted beekeepers as much as an additional $25 per colony. Growers bet that those larger colonies would field more bees during those marginal flight days. To say that 2017 was an unusual almond bloom is an understatement.
While the almond growers are looking toward their harvest, beekeepers are beginning to think about next year’s almond pollination. Beekeepers must begin their preparations for next year’s almond bloom now. Mite management, culling and feeding have to begin now. Most beekeepers I speak to are cautiously optimistic about the bees after this summer. Most beekeepers report that mite levels are under control, and the bees that I have observed are building well into the fall. Though most commercial beekeepers are treating for mites three and four times a year, the control measures seem to be working adequately. We still desperately need more commercially sound control measures for Varroa mites, since relying largely on one product is certainly a scary proposition. New, effective products and methods for mite control couldn’t happen too soon. For more information on what PAm is doing to support research in mite control, go to the PAm website and review the numerous research reports.
Most regions around the country are reporting moderate honey yields--not great yields but not disastrous results either. Beekeepers in the Dakotas report drought conditions in the western and central part of the states, resulting in spotty production. The eastern sides of the Dakotas had a little more moisture and are reporting better yields.
Floral bloom in the southeastern part of the country was pretty poor this year. The normal crops that support colonies following almond bloom didn’t materialize, forcing beekeepers to move their colonies to better forage. Later, in Central and South Florida, the palmetto and cabbage palm provided nice buildup for the bees and even produced a modest surplus when the colonies were strong enough to take advantage of it. The Brazilian Pepper is just starting to bloom in Florida providing buildup for the late summer splits.
This time of year, beekeepers and almond growers alike try to prognosticate what bee supply will be like during the upcoming almond bloom. While it is far too early to be certain, indications are that beekeepers have made up previous losses; the bees are looking strong; mite levels are low; and the mite treatments that are going on now still seem to be effective. For now, we keep our fingers crossed, watch colony nutrition and continue to monitor Varroa mites at this critical time of year.
You have to admit, beekeeping is not a dull industry in which to be involved.
Board Member, Project Apis m.