March Madness, Heitkam Style
Greetings from Northern California,
Hi there, I’m Pat Heitkam. It was not my first choice to be writing this column, but since you will get a diversity of voices from the PAm’s new Board Report column, I am who you get first. I am many things, though a writer isn’t one of them. But here goes!
Heitkams’ Honey Bees in Orland, California. My son, Russell, and I run about 6,000 hives. We pollinate almonds along with a few minor crops. We also sell package bees, but our primary endeavor is queen production. We ship queens from April through November depending on availability. I often say that it used to be a beekeeper had to fall asleep to fail. But nowadays it seems all you must do is blink, and you’re behind the eight-ball. This year at Heitkams’ Honey Bees started out very challenging. Our winter losses were the highest ever. This included subpar hives not suitable for pollinations (it seems we all get our turn), and we’re still not sure of all the causes. We think mite re-infestations and the accompanying viruses are a major factor. Recent evidence shows that a collapsing colony’s mites are soon found in colonies over two miles away! This means you can do everything right, and still fall victim to somebody else’s mites. Beekeeping businesses are all different, but one of the basic principles of Integrated Pest Management is to time treatments strategically, as in ‘immunize the herd.’ If beekeepers could develop some common treatment windows, it could really help reduce all our mite loads. Obviously, it wouldn’t work for all beekeepers, but if beekeepers could cooperate even just on a regional level, it could make a big difference. Before almond pollination, we predicted a significant shortage of bees, but that did not come to pass. There seemed to be just enough hives to fill the needs of the growers. In coming years, as more acreage becomes available, the availability of bees may be tighter.
Fortunately, our season improved. With the assistance of some good friends, who are conscientious beekeepers, we could do an effective job for our growers. The weather was not ideal in Northern California, but populous hives were able to work in small weather windows and marginal conditions. We think the crop may be OK, we will know for certain when they are in the wind row. We hope to have an early report on the crop from Gordy Wardell, so stay tuned.
This year, flooding has been an issue for many of us. There were significant losses, and the dramatic photos on PAm’s Facebook page had many people asking, who is responsible for the loss of hives? Who is responsible for replacing the hives to get pollination completed? As a beekeeper who does pollination, these are questions that should be dealt with prior to doing the job. For Heitkams’ Honey Bees, we’ve been accustomed to the possibility of flooding since the early 1980’s. We’ve discovered the high parts in the orchards (bee islands), and knowing the risk some orchards provide stands up to four feet above the orchard floor (see photo below). They’re difficult, but nobody has wet feet!
Theft protection, or deterrents, is something else to discuss with your grower. In one vulnerable area up here the beekeepers and growers chipped in .25 per hive to hire a nighttime security officer to drive around the orchards to discourage thefts of all types. It has been successful for three years. When you consider the loss of a hive, the bees, and equipment, the pollination contract, and the honey crop, it is worth protecting!
And now, it’s March Madness for Heitkams’ Honey Bees. No basketball is involved. We are moving hives from almonds to prunes, shaking bees for graft, raising cells, shaking for queen nucs, stocking nucs, putting nucs out in mating yards, producing cells for other keepers, catching and shipping queens, shaking packages, praying for nice weather, etc., etc. We are so thankful that we have great and loyal work crews. When we are finished, we will have an outfit to rebuild. It may or may not return to its previous size. For this job, all of the rainy weather may pay off.
I am very thankful for and proud to be part of Project Apis m. There are so many positive actions being taken by PAm, it’s difficult to single out one. But today I’m going to talk about PAm and habitat.
PAm is taking a two-pronged approach with habitat, Seeds for Bees in California and the Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund expanding from the Upper Midwest. These are locations where forage can benefit most the nation’s bees.
Where we live in California, ground is being converted into orchards, primarily almonds and walnuts, at a very high rate. Most orchards are planted fence row to fence row with good weed control. This is taking a toll on beneficial insect populations, as well as pheasants, quail, and virtually all wild life. It’s also removing all the other blooming plants that pollinators are looking for. What can we do? We could use those same farming efficiencies to create habitat in non- or less productive areas. Seeds for Bees offers free seed to growers to create habitat, between tree rows, on bordering open ground, etc. The benefits to bees are obvious, but the benefits to farmers are excellent as well. Jump starting hives so they’re ready early, soil nutrition, and water penetration are a few of these benefits.
Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund is working with Midwest farmers to alleviate problems caused by large increases in corn and soybean acreage. Farm consolidation, fence row to fence row farming, Round-up ready crops, etc., have taken a toll on beneficials and critters as a whole. Let’s get those excellent farmers to use marginal ground, riparian areas along waterways, as well as rehab areas to plant the best habitat possible.
Honey bees have had their 15 minutes of fame for the past 10 years! Now people like Pheasants Forever, Monarch Butterfly folks, as well as many other concerned groups want to team with us. We all need the same thing! The movement is big but lacks a uniting force. Can Project APIS m. be the leader? What can you do to help promote this effort?
When bees are healthy the beekeeper prospers. When bees are not healthy, it’s hard to make a living, and there is much more at stake. In my 30 plus years of associating with beekeepers, I’ve never seen a group of folks who are more resilient. That may be due to pure stubbornness, but I like to think it’s hopefulness, tenacity, and a passion for the incredible interaction with nature that we get to be a part of.
I want to thank my family, especially my son, Russell, for keeping it all going.
Board Member, Project Apis m.
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