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Beekeepers abuzz as almond bloom nears

This time of the year, Orin Johnson is busy. In fact, he’s as busy as, well, a bee.

Johnson is a beekeeper and the outgoing president of the California State Beekeepers Association.

With almond bloom in the San Joaquin Valley just days away, Johnson and other beehive owners are hauling hives, checking bee health and making sure the little flying insects are ready for their early spring work.

Almond farmers depend almost solely on bees to pollinate Merced’s second-most lucrative crop. In 2006, more than 87,000 acres of almond trees produced about $268 million worth of the tasty little nut.

And those trees need bees. During the first week of February, bees start buzzing into California from all over the nation.

“We normally see almond bloom on about the 15th of February,” said Johnson. This year, he added, the bloom might be a bit late due to cold weather. He expects it to start around the 20th of the month.

It takes about 475,000 hives to pollinate almond trees in the state, with the growers needing about 2.3 million bees. The rule of thumb for growers is two hives per acre. Because of the number of bees needed in such a short time, about two-thirds of the bees used for almond pollination come from out of state.

Those traveler bees have caused problems for Merced County in the past. Fire ants were introduced into the county in bee hives in 2002, and outbreaks of the stinging insect in the Snelling area were hard to stop.

Donald Mayeda, deputy agriculture commissioner for Merced County, said the county still inspects hives for fire ants. “It seems to be getting a bit better — we haven’t found any this year so far,” Mayeda said.

The fire ants usually come from the Southern states, such as Florida and the Carolinas, hitching rides on the hives. At border stations, trucks are inspected, and the county is notified of what county the bees are headed to.

Although fire ants have been a problem in the past, the newest threat to hit honeybees and their hives is colony collapse disorder. Hives that seem healthy end up with either sick bees or missing bees. Mayeda said that although there are a lot of theories about what is causing colony collapse, no one has a definite answer.

“The collapse can happen anytime, especially if the bees are stressed,” Mayeda said.

Almond growers can have the county inspect hives, according to Karen Overstreet, assistant agriculture commissioner for Merced County. “We can do strength tests, testing the live bees that are present in the hives.”

Johnson said that a lot of beekeepers believe that colony collapse is an accumulation of a number of factors. “We think it’s basically related to a mite (the Varroa mite) that infects bees,” he said.Mites can actually spin off viruses, which can wipe out entire hives. “If you don’t control mites, they control you,” said Johnson.

Another problem beekeepers face is keeping the bees happy and fed before pollination starts. Last year was a bad one for bees, because the forage that produces pollen and nectar in the fall didn’t get enough moisture, and bees had almost nothing to eat. When that happens, beekeepers must feed the insects, and Johnson said that unnatural food is not always good for the bees.

“At best it keeps them going, but like any animal, they need the real stuff,” Johnson said.Despite bee health problems, beekeeping is a lucrative business right now, Johnson said. Because almond growers are making good money on their crops, healthy bee hives are in strong demand.When most people think of bees, they think of honey. But most beekeepers who provide bees for pollination don’t make use of the honey that the insects produce.

“Almond honey tastes horrible, like the pit of a peach,” Johnson said. He does put his beehives near Hollister in the summer and fall, when the sage is in bloom. The sage, a variety of which is found only in California and Baja California, produces a premium honey.

“Honey is like wine — there’s all kinds,” Johnson said.

But because of the long process needed to make honey, a lot of beekeepers just let the bees eat it. Honey is their natural food, and keeps them healthier than artificial bee food.

With the cold and rainy weather lately, both almond growers and beekeepers are keeping their eyes on the sky. If the cold weather causes a short bloom time, bees may not be able to get all the nuts pollinated.

“I’ve heard that the bee supply for this season seems to be drying up already. Without bees, there are no almonds,” Johnson said.

That’s one buzz farmers and growers can do without.

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

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