Bees need a holiday too!

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Montana Scenery
Montana Scenery

Last October I was in Northern California to interview Ray Olivarez of Olivarez Honey Bees. It took a fair bit of arranging to get a date which worked for Ray but eventually we settled on Tuesday 23rd October at his place in Orland.

A walrus far from home…

My flight from the UK landed at Sacramento International Airport (SMF) on Sunday night, so I had the Monday to try to get over my jet-lag, before making my way to the car hire company on Tuesday morning. Yes, I was going to drive in America! Driving in a foreign land, on the other side of the road, with road signs and customs I was unfamiliar with was something I had prepared myself for, but I was out of my comfort zone. Travelling on my own to meet people that I don’t know, and who don’t know me, to interview them for my book is, in fact, several zones along from my zone of comfort.

The process of collecting my rental vehicle turned out to be most satisfactory. The young lady who took me to my car was distressed to find that it did not possess the satellite navigation system that I had ordered, so she apologised, went away, and returned with the keys for a much smarter looking motor. It was something big and comfortable and American, but to my assistant’s horror, this too was missing the vital piece of navigation hardware. She found more ways to humbly apologise, which at one point involved complimenting me on my sports jacket (a rather fetching Harris tweed, if you must know), and this time she handed me the keys to a black Jaguar XF 3.0 V6. I wasn’t going to hand them back, especially as I was charged nothing for the upgrade, so off I drove, rather pleased with myself.

My Jaguar in California
My Jaguar in California

Within minutes I had taken a wrong turn and had to pull over in an airport car park to compose myself. How the hell am I going to get to Orland in time, thought I, if I can’t even find my way out of the airport?! Family members who have experienced my heightened stress levels when driving on holidays abroad would have recognised the tell-tale signs of a walrus about to explode; the beads of sweat forming on the brow, the shortness of breath and the waving of arms and fidgeting of arse.

Once I got going again, I found the roads of California to be fantastic, and my whole “driving in America” experience was relatively straightforward and enjoyable. The potholed crowded streets back home are a nightmare compared to what I saw over the pond. I may have broken a speed limit or two in my fancy V6, as is surely my right as a walrus abroad, and I arrived at Ray’s place in Orland an hour early.

Olivarez Honey Bees

Ray introduced me to his wife Tammy and various other family members and business colleagues, who were all about to have a board meeting, so I left them to it and spent some time with an impressive lady who looks after what Ray calls “the bible” (the hive report). Her job is to ensure that the central record of all the hives in the whole operation is up to date and accurate at all times. It is a prodigious task requiring serious hard work, attention to detail and dedication.

They were in the process of bringing 10,000 colonies back to California from Montana, and the location and condition of every hive was recorded and tracked using the hive record. Ray later told me that he sends many of his colonies to sites in Montana to escape from the intense agriculture and more stressful environment in California. This year he kept 5,000 back in California, and the rest went to Montana. They get sent on their Summer holidays to the gorgeous, pristine countryside where they can make honey and have access to wholesome natural pollen, and recover from the rigours of almond pollination. Ray’s sites in Montana are protected by law; no other beekeeper is allowed to set up within a 3-mile radius of his bees, which is not something that you find in California. The bees return in October broodless, because it gets cold up there, which provides an ideal opportunity to treat for varroa mites as they have nowhere to hide.

My interview with Ray took place in the boardroom after their meeting had concluded. I do not have space now to go through all of the wonderful nuggets of information and stories that he told me about, and if I did you wouldn’t need to read my book, which would be sad for me. I asked him about getting hives ready for almond pollination and got this response:

Ray “If you make a mistake in May you can still fix the bees by October, but if you don’t have healthy bees in October they just dwindle and die out going into the almonds. That’s why you hear about these 30% – 50% losses; it’s occurring in October, November, December and January but it was caused by something that happened back in July or didn’t happen.”

Walrus “Probably varroa?”

Ray “Yeah, then viruses. These viruses are in the bees, but varroa allows them to express themselves. When we went to Hawaii, we didn’t have varroa mites yet. We sent samples to the bee lab in Maryland, and David Wick had a machine that separated particles, and we were able to detect virus loads. We had all of the viruses in Hawaii, but we just didn’t have varroa mites, right, we didn’t have the stressor that causes the viruses to become a problem. We had Nosema ceranae in Hawaii already, high levels, but when we got the mites all the problems of the mainland came down on us, plus small hive beetles. That’s OK because we have learned how to manage them and our breeding program over there has all of this stress; we’ve got varroa mites and viruses and small hive beetles, which helps us with our selection of breeder queens.”

“We raise queens all year round over there which is one of the reasons we went to Hawaii. I bought Big Island Queens about 12 years ago because I wanted queens from Hawaii, but I could never get them because people were sold out. Having that operation in Hawaii for ourselves has been great. We use probably 3000 – 4000 queens on our own hives here in California that we produced over there.”

Walrus “How many queens would you say you make a year?”

Ray “This year we produced about 370,000 queens.”

Walrus “That’s a lot!”

Ray “Yeah. We produced about 270,000 in California and not quite 100,000 in Hawaii. It’s usually 80,000 to 100,000 queens in Hawaii.”

Some OHB incubators for queen rearing
Some OHB incubators for queen rearing

Please don’t get the idea that Ray does not treat his bees and his staff with all the love and care that you would expect from a smaller scale beekeeper. He runs a huge and successful operation which owes its success to how well the bees are looked after. They even get a holiday in Montana.

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