By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Bees critical to success of almond crop
Chris Espinosa of Valley Honey Co. out of Lodi, left, and helper Roberto Ateves check on the progress of bees in an almond orchard on Friday. - photo by HIME ROMERO
Today there is somewhere in the neighborhood of 5.28 billion bees buzzing around almond orchards about Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon.

And just how busy they are will determine the fate of 33,000 acres of almonds in the South County.

The more the bees cross pollinate the white and pink blooms the better the odds are for bigger yields.

And right in the middle of it for the past 32 years have been two Manteca women - Charleen Carroll and Linda Hicken. They are among a handful of bee brokers in the Central Valley that bring beekeepers from as far away as Texas and Montana to almond growers who need the bees.

Carroll was out among the almonds doing what she has been doing for the last 32 years as winter starts slipping away - checking bee hives up close. It’s to assure the hives are of the quality that growers need since underperforming hives will cost growers big time in the pocketbooks.

That means her preferred dress this time of year is a beekeepers suit.

As her husband Mike drives his white pickup between a row of almonds, Carroll notes that one should not wear black clothes around bees.

“Black agitates them,” she said as she started stepping into her work suit. “White is a more soothing color.”

On Friday she was checking on beehives close to home north of Escalon. On other days her spot checks will take her to places such as Delano and Patterson or wherever she and her partner have brokered the placement of bees from roughly 300 beekeepers.

The beekeeper at the Escalon orchard was taking a nap with his worker dressed in beekeeper suits underneath an almond tree in full bloom.

Being a beekeeper can be demanding work often starting before the crack of dawn and going into the night. But as far as Chris Espinosa of Lodi-based Valley Honey Co. is concerned, it is well worth it.

Espinosa operates with 1,000 hives
“The lifestyle is great as you get to work outdoors,” he said gesturing toward the east where the snow-capped Sierra rose above a sea of white almond blossoms as far as the eye could see. “Where else can you see such spectacular scenery and enjoy such great smells?”

The third generation beekeeper has roughly 1,000 hives. His season starts in February along the almonds. Next he’ll hit cherry orchards and after that head south toward the Fresno area and the orange groves. As May rolls around he’ll be on the road to Montana where his bees help pollinate everything from clover hay to alfalfa and sunflowers.

Espinosa and his helper Roberto Ateves grab two bee smokers that are essential to the checking of hives.

“It (the smoke blasts) helps calm them down,” Espinosa said.

He goes to a pallet with four double-box bee hives and takes out a pry tool to get off the lid. You can try all you want to remove the lid by hand but the bees have secured it with beeswax to protect the hive.

Once the lid is off you can see why he wants to calm the bees down. There are some 80,000 bees per hive.

“You don’t want to get the queen crushed,” Espinosa said as puffs of smoke roll across the frames already partially covered with honey combs, countless bees and eggs.

The honey combs are far from being ready to harvest the honey that he sells wholesale. Espinosa noted almond pollination is feeding time for the bees.

The queen - which hails from Hawaii as that is the only place in the United States you can secure queens this early in the season that are needed for almonds - is nowhere to be found. He assumes she is in the bottom box that also has eight frames covered with bees.

The temperature had warmed up a bit Friday prompting Espinosa to estimate at least two frames worth of bees - about 10,000 of them - were out doing their job in the almonds. If the temperature drops much below 50 to 55 degrees bees keep to the hives.

“The bees like warmth,” he said.

Typically, farmers need about two hives per acre. Given that California has 750,000 acres in almonds that’s a lot of hives not to mention bees.

The California almond pollination season is the biggest mobilization of bee hives in the world. It brings hives from the majority of states in the Lower 48 to California.

Espinosa lifts another hive lid and spies the bane of beekeepers - a bee mite.

Never pull bee stingers out
Two different mites and 17 different viruses have the capability of wiping out a complete hive. As he tends to making sure the appropriate mite controls are in place, a bee stings Bulletin photographer Hime Romero on the nose as he had pressed against the netting on the beekeeper hat just as he was taking a photo.

“Don’t pull the stinger out,” Espinosa warns. “You want to scrap it off so you don’t burst open the poison (sack.)”

Espinosa - who has sustained plenty of bee stings - is working without the benefit of beekeeper gloves. One bee stung him on the hand but he brushed it off as well as the stinger without flinching or suffering any ill after affects.

There are perhaps two weeks left in the almonds for his bees before he relocates them to cherry orchards.

For Carroll and her partner, their season ends later this month as they have stuck to working with almond growers.

They started 32 years ago while their church still owned the meeting house on Pine Street. The Church Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had assessed families a set amount of money to help build a new church facility of her family budget.

“We were watching every nickel at the time,” Carroll recalled.

Carroll and her friend Linda Hicken decided they needed to get jobs.

A beekeeper from Washington who had placed his hives in Manteca orchards showed up for a Sunday service. He happened to chat with the two and was telling them how expensive it was for him to scout out his own growers as he wasn’t pleased with brokers that were available to them.

At one point he suggested it was something they could do.

Both immediately jumped at the idea. A day later, they were pulling out of Manteca at 5 a.m. in an old bee truck and driving to Washington where they spent a week learning all about beekeeping.

They then returned home and tried to secure a loan from a bank.

“We had no money,” she said.

The first bank turned them down. But then they stopped at Delta Bank. Delta loaned them $500 for the necessary start-up expenses.

After the first season they had enough to pay the $2,000 commitment to the building funds, cover all of their expenses, set aside money for the next season and repay the loan in full.

Both were hooked not just with the sights and smells that went along with the job but the people they got to work with.

“Growers and beekeepers are great people,” Carroll said. “I intend to keep doing this for as long as I can.”