Time for pollination of almond crop

Busy bees set loose in orchards

January 19, 2011 

N18_BEEHIVES

SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG Jamen Elliot, center, pumps corn syrup into a bee hive while Jason Conrad, right, keeps the bees quiet by smoking them. At left, Nick Terrones, watches as the bees get fed. The first two weeks of February, these bees will be moved to almond orchards in the area to help with pollination.

MARCI STENBERG — Merced Sun-Star

There are about 2.4 million beehives in the United States.

Half of those hives will find themselves in California in the next couple of weeks, with their buzzing little residents working like the bees they are to pollinate the state's almond crop.

Jason Conrad is one of myriad beekeepers working to make sure the almond growers have the hives they need. He's been working with bees since he was 13, and has been in business for himself for a bit more than six years.

"Our local beekeepers can't provide as many bees as are needed here," Conrad said. "Pretty much every beekeeper west of the Mississippi comes to California with their bees this time of the year."

Almonds are completely dependent on bees for pollination. Merced County has more than 94,000 acres of almonds, and those almonds were worth more than $245 million in 2009, making the crop the third-most valuable commodity in the county. California had more than 700,000 acres of almonds in 2009, producing about 80 percent of the world's supply. Almonds were worth about $2.3 billion in the state in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Conrad hopes to have his hives in place by the first couple of weeks of February, since the peak bloom of the almond trees is usually from the middle to the end of February.

"Best weather for the bloom is ideally 60 degrees every day with no wind," Conrad said. "If it's not warm, or it's raining, the bees don't like to fly."

The average number of hives per acre is two and half hives, Conrad said. And the honey made by the bees in an almond orchard isn't very tasty, Conrad added. "It tastes like a peach pit," he laughed. The honey from almond orchards is usually used to feed the bees, not humans.

Conrad has had his hives wintering in areas from La Grange to Le Grand this year. He said he fed his bees this year so they would grow and be healthy when the almond bloom started. He feeds them corn syrup to give the bees the most energy possible.

Fred Michaelis, an agricultural biologist for Merced County, said part of his job for the county is to check the hives that come from other states into Merced County.

Although there are native bees that help pollinate almond trees, the honeybee hives that almond growers rent each year make sure the trees get pollinated. "Honeybees are the only ones you can be certain will be there every day," Michaelis said.

Only about a third of the beehives needed in Merced County come from the area. The rest must be trucked in. Many of those hives come from southern states, and those are the hives that get the most scrutiny, Michaelis said.

"The ones we specifically inspect are from states with fire ants: Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and parts of Oklahoma," he said. "We aren't going to spend a lot of time on the ones from North Dakota."

In the past, the fire ants that have been able to establish colonies here have come from beehives.

Keeping his bees healthy is Conrad's No. 1 goal, and in an industry that has seen losses from colony collapse disorder, that can be a big goal.

"I haven't lost a lot of bees," Conrad said. "But I have friends who have lost 40 to 60 percent of their bees, and they're really suffering."

Colony collapse disorder strikes when the worker bees in a hive disappear with no known cause.

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com.

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