I met up with a very busy Ray Olivarez of Olivarez Honey Bees last October at his company headquarters in Orland, Northern California. In this audio clip from the interview he talks about his famous Hobby Day which is coming up this weekend, as well as pollination, mite treatments and keeping his bees healthy. He moves most of his bees to the high prairies of Montana after almond pollination in February, which allows them to recover and come back in October strong and healthy.
Olivarez Honey Bees is run by Ray, who is a second generation beekeeper, and his family. It is a huge undertaking; they sell over 160,000 queens a year and when I visited they had 16,000 colonies. Despite the scale it is obvious that the quality of queens, happiness of their employees and the health of their bees are of paramount importance.
Ray: Now for Canada, we ship queens to Canada, we ship a lot of queens to Canada, and every thirty or forty five days we have to do DNA testing on the breeder queens.
Ray: Yep – to ship to Canada. But getting into the bees, most people that excel in bees love bees, and they love the work. It’s very hard work. I don’t know much about the UK to be honest with you but I don’t think it’s too far off.
Steve: The commercial beekeepers that I’ve spoken to all work crazy hours but they love it. They wouldn’t be able to do it if they didn’t love it.
Steve: Some people think, “Oh, you are commercial, bees are just boxes that you move around.”
Steve: But all of the people have spoken to care about their bees probably better than the hobby guy.
Ray: Our biggest problem here in the US…no, it’s not our biggest problem, it’s one of them, its CCD – Colony Collapse Disorder. It’s an umbrella for everything. It’s the lack of forage, it’s the varroa mites, it’s the viruses, it’s the poor beekeepers, it’s everything; it’s the environment, you know?
We have a hobby day here where we have almost three thousand people show up. Only about a thousand of those are people who want to buy a package or two, they want to have bees, because they want to help the environment. We also know that 60% of them are going to fail because it’s not easy. Those bees get infested with mites, they spread to our commercial colonies and they get more difficult for us to keep. They are going to do it regardless. If we tell them, “No, we don’t have any packages,” they are going to find them somewhere. So we have that day where we bring in Randy Oliver. We bring in the tech transfer team – the Bee Informed Partnership, Larry Connor to talk about brood diseases, Kim Flottum just to talk about how to be a hobby beekeeper. So we do demonstrations and we try to give them as much information as we can to help them be successful and keep healthy bees. Usually it takes two or three years of them coming back, then all of a sudden they start getting it. Then they don’t buy any more packages from us because they are keeping their own bees alive. That’s successful.
Randy will probably talk to you about this when he sees you and vanEngelsdorp talked about it two years ago, about mite bombs.
Ray: What we are getting even in our own colonies, there’s always about two or three percent of the colonies in every yard where just for some reason you can’t get all the mites. Maybe there is something with the pheromones of that queen that are super strong and are maybe attracting bees. It seems like colonies that are stressed abscond and go to colonies looking for help, so you are spreading all these mites. Randy’s done something, and Dennis did it too, where they tagged bees and Randy is finding them like half a mile, even a mile away in other hives; that’s how much these bees drift. That’s a real concern. It’s one of the problems that we have but again we just need to keep working on that.
Steve: It’s about testing I guess?
Ray: Regularly testing your bees; alcohol washing is a great way – you can get the exact numbers from Randy on that. In our own bees, when they come back from Montana, we start doing alcohol washes right away to see what the levels are and what kind of treatments we need. When they come back from Montana to us they are broodless because it’s cold there. You can’t over Winter there unless you are indoors. We treat one more time, which we are doing now, when they are broodless; nowhere for the mites to hide. The mite levels are already low. What we are worried about is beekeepers that are learning, who are everywhere, their bees re-infesting our bees, because we are at 85 deg F here.
Steve: Ok. Without giving too much away could you say what on average is the way your revenue is split between pollination, honey, queens, packages – do you mind sharing that?
Ray: Yeah, I’d say queens and packages is probably half of our revenue. On pollination all we do is almonds. We don’t pollinate vine seeds anymore, or seed crops; too many chemicals. Way too many chemicals.
Steve: But almonds are OK?
Ray: Well, we have to do them because we need that revenue. It’s high enough. A typical revenue for almond pollination is $180 to $210 per hive. If you do sunflowers, watermelon, cantaloupes, you are looking at anywhere from $25 to $40. There are some speciality crops in the apples where there are three days maybe, because they’ve got this cluster of flowers and they only want one pollinated. Literally. I just learned this the other day from somebody, Brett Ady I think. They are called the King apples and there’s six or seven blossoms and one opens up; they want that one pollinated, and the bees might be there for two days. Then you’ve got to get them out because they start spraying. They use what’s called Sevin which is a death sentence for bees. Because of that timeline they might get paid a little bit more for their services. The execution is harder.
Steve: It sounds like almonds are…there’s a lot more money there isn’t there?
Ray: Yeah, the only thing you’ve got to deal with there is your bees being around everybody else’s bees, because it’s large acreages and it’s from Red Bluff California down to Bakersfield; the whole valley. Fungicides can effect bees and we’re still learning about that.
For us it’s queens and package bees, and then pollination, and then honey. On honey you never know if you are going to make a profit or not for sure. That’s a tough one to budget on, honey production, for us.
Steve: Presumably if you have a bad honey year you at least break even though? Or maybe not?
Ray: It just depends on your inputs.
Steve: Do you ever get years when you make no honey?
Ray: Well last year we made 138 barrels on ten thousand hives. This year we made 1,400. The reason we went to Montana was to get the bees out of the Sacramento Valley, California, where it’s intense agriculture – all the spraying all Summer. We moved them up into the high prairies where they had natural forage, they had pollen. Even though it was a dry year we still had pollen for the bees. The bees come home very healthy which, as long as we do our management right with mite treatments and re-queening, things like that, gives us the best chance of a good year next season.
Pollen is king; pollen, pollen, pollen. Location, location, location. If you have pollen and propolis and natural nectar you have a healthy hive. They can tolerate better; maybe viruses don’t kick in. It’s like people; poor nutrition, weak immune system – susceptible to diseases. It’s the same thing for bees.