A disaster in the almonds?
November 19, 2012
Winter has settled in on us and there's little question what season we are in now. It was 11 degrees yesterday morning and while we will likely have some respites from the deep cold off and on, night time temperatures in the teens will be the norm from here on, and much lower during the cold snaps. Moisture over the weekend started as rain then turned to a wet snow, which then froze overnight and left everything flocked with a couple of inches of snow like a big cake.
When I can I try to take advantage of the bad weather days by doing candles in the Honey House, so I spent the weekend dipping. I have two propane stoves that heat the Honey House nicely and it is especially pleasant when the snow is falling outside the windows.
The Honey House is a sanctuary of sorts I suppose, no phone, no TV, no interruptions. Interruptions are significant, but probably not for reasons you would think. I don't mind if a friend or two drops by now and then and I can usually keep on working and carry on a conversation. It's interruptions of a different sort that cause problems. While I said no phone, actually I do have a cell phone, but few people have the number and I seldom get calls. Nevertheless I've had to train myself to take the cell phone out of my pocket when I am dipping candles.
Because the cell phone vibrates and rings at a call, and the vibration causes me to jump a bit, hesitate. If it happens when I'm lifting a set of candles from the dip tank, that small jerk causes a ring around the candles, like the ring around an earthworm. If it happens early in the dipping process when the candles are thin that ring may be buried by successive dips and disappear, but if it comes toward the end, when there may be only a dip or two left, those candles won't be sold, they become mine to burn at the Honey House while I work or around the house. An unexpected knock on the door may have the same effect.
Candlemaking is a solitary, meditative time and my mind wanders onto all sorts of things when there are no interruptions, and because it is such a quiet time the interruptions that do come are much more interruptive, thus, the ring around the candles.
In traditional beekeeping operations both the bees and beekeepers settled into winter by this time in the late fall. I will still be making rounds of the bees when the weather allows because some colonies will need supplemental feeding if they are going to make it, but the time spent with the bees will decrease and I can do other things.
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The pattern isn't quite the same for larger commercial beekeepers, and their routine now is very different than it was for their fathers and grandfathers.
For beekeepers in the northern tier of states the past month has been roundup time, the honey crop is off and they are consolidating their colonies in holding yards, sorting out the weak or dead and loading the balance on semis for the trip to California. Some beekeepers contract with truckers who specialize in moving bees while others have their own fleet of trucks and do their own driving. It's become a gypsy life for many of them, they are on the road at least spring and fall if they are focused on almond pollination, and for some, most of the year is spent on the road moving their bees around. Some beekeepers have established second homes in California or move the family out there for the winter in RVs and trailers, others go out to California periodically to look after their bees but continue to live in their home states.
The almond pollination has kept most of these commercial operations alive. Almond contracts settled out at about $140 per colony last year and will probably start there this year, but may go considerably higher if there is competition for colonies as the numbers shake out. If the worst happens, for some growers there may not be bees available at any price.
While most of the northern beekeepers have their bees in California now the southern beekeepers generally hold off until just prior to the almond bloom. Northern beekeepers want to get their bees out of winter, out to the warmer climate of California where they can build up rather than get smaller as they adjust to the onset of cold weather. Southern beekeepers, from states like Florida, Texas, Arizona or the southeastern states can keep their bees building at home until they finally make the move.
For the early arrivals there are generally two approaches. Some, usually those who have been going to California for several years, have locations in the Sierra foothills or in the Central Valley where they can spread their bees out in smaller holding yards and the bees can do some foraging. Others bring them into much bigger holding yards where large numbers of colonies are maintained with supplemental feeding, like a feed lot for bees. Southern beekeepers are more likely to hit the ground running when they arrive in California, just before bloom, semis are unloaded in temporary locations and are quickly distributed around the orchards to meet pollination contracts.
Almonds are a golden crop for California growers and they have added thousands of acres of new trees every year. Last year there were 780,000 acres of almonds and this year that figure will be well above 800,000.
Almonds are completely dependent on honey bees for pollination, two colonies per acre, so almond pollination this year will require over 1.6 million colonies and there are storm clouds on the horizon. I've spoken with commercial beekeepers in California and the news is not looking good. Many of the northern operators who have moved their bees in are seeing dramatic declines, a collapse in other words. Some of the northern beekeepers who saw this collapse earlier are not even going to California this year and these are operations with thousands of colonies. Other beekeepers who've made the move are now discovering that their bees are collapsing and they may be able to come up with only a third of the colonies they thought they would have to meet their contracts.
Almonds have become a multi-billion dollar crop and we could be headed for a disaster, but a disaster may be the only thing that brings the system to its senses, sadly it may be exactly what we need. A billion dollar loss in the almonds would be hard to ignore.
There is every indication that we have turned American farmland and urban land into killing fields that are hostile to life and this is why the bees are doing so poorly. Farmers have been turned into drug addicts, dependent on a growing menu of chemicals, and as these fail the chemical dependency escalates with new chemicals on top of the old. Herbicide resistance, for example, was supposed to reduce chemical inputs, and for a time it did, but in a study recently released by Dr. Charles Benbrook, herbicide use has escalated instead, with millions of additional pounds of herbicides being applied to deal with resistant weeds.
I know some of my farmer friends become uncomfortable when I say these things, but I am not out to bash the farmers. I think they have been led down the garden path and have not been well served by these new agricultural technologies, they are as much casualties here as the beekeepers, it just isn't quite as obvious — yet.
The bees, as important as they may be, are just the indicator species and we need to pay attention. Now, along with the environmental damage we are beginning to see some serious questions about human health. Maybe a disaster in the almonds is exactly what we need to wake us up. ❖