Perhaps more important to the sustained growth of almond production in California isn’t the water, though that is a vital component, but the tiny creatures imported to California for several weeks each year to make sure those trees produce a crop.
Almonds need bees for pollination; lots of bees. Without bees, the almond tree is just another shade tree.
As each year the bearing acreage of almonds increases – now over 1 million – the industry could be faced with a dilemma as the number of bee colonies in the United States may be insufficient to pollinate those trees. At the recommended two honeybee colonies per acre, growers are already pushing the limit of the nation’s supply of almost 2.6 million colonies, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures.
Not all the nation’s honeybees are brought into California for almond pollination. Some beekeepers choose to keep colonies out of the pollination period for a variety of reasons.
National honeybee numbers continue to be stressed by a variety of factors that researchers continue to study and the Almond Board of California (ABC) would like to rectify as the marketing order charges ahead with plans to market 25 percent more nuts by 2020.
The most recent USDA count of honeybee colonies in the U.S., released last spring, shows the number of colonies were down 8 percent to 2.59 million as of Jan., 2016.
Looming on the horizon is the projected 25 percent increase in total almond production by 2020 – upwards of 2.6 billion pounds of nuts could be harvested by then as trees planted in the past several years come into production.
That announcement at the Almond Conference in Sacramento, Calif. in early December led several beekeepers and brokers to ask out loud: “Where will the bees come from?”
One bee broker said he was significantly short of available bees last year and suspects he will be similarly short of colonies again this year.
This has the ABC funding research into honeybee stressors that are commonly lumped under the umbrella term “colony collapse disorder.”
This year’s almond conference featured an increased number of presentations centered on honeybee health, and a large number of research posters on display in the trade show, where growers and industry leaders could talk with researchers and graduate students about the various studies under way.
Elina Nino, extension apiculturist for the University of California and an entomologist studying honeybee health issues, says there are a host of causes linked to honeybee deaths. These include the Varroa mite, various pathogens (some transmitted by the Varroa), pesticide exposure and the decline in forage opportunities for bees, particularly in California.
Nino was one of a host of different honeybee specialists to speak at the annual Almond Conference in Sacramento in December. She continues to work on some of her own projects at her bee lab in Davis, Calif. and collaborate with other researchers on a variety of issues, including work on biopesticides to control the Varroa in bee colonies.
While she says there appears to be some promising results from her studies, it is too early to tell.
“This has been a pretty large undertaking for the last several years,” she said.
A parasitic disease condition called Nosema is another in the list of issues affecting colony health, according to Nino.
There are apparently at least two strains of Nosema that can affect honeybee health. These parasitic conditions generally attack the gut cells of honeybees, puncturing them. Once this happens bees are unable to absorb nutrition.
Recent findings suggest that Nosema ceranea is more predominant of the two strains though she admits the pathology remains unclear into the two strains.
“It is still a newer pathogen that people are concerned with,” she said.
Pesticide applications remain a significant concern as the use of insect growth regulators to control other pests can impact honeybees.
“It’s not a surprise,” she says of the IGRs. “These are insect growth regulators, so it is obvious that they can affect the developing brood.”
For this reason the ABC and others continue to recommend evening pesticide sprays, if necessary, during bloom. They also recommend not tank mixing pesticides with the more common fungicide sprays during bloom as there is little known regarding the synergy created when a fungicide and pesticide are tank mixed.
The Almond Board recommends that any necessary crop protection applications be made late enough in the day when honeybees are not in the orchard, but not too late that the products cannot dry until later the following morning.
Project Apis m
Another bee-friendly effort under way encourages almond growers to plant flowering cover crops and wildflowers to give bees more opportunities to forage before, during and after almond pollination.
“We need honeybees to be at their strongest right before almond pollination,” says Billy Synk, director of pollination programs for Project Apis m (PAm), a non-profit organization that funds research studies and helps purchase equipment for bee labs at universities.
Getting bees to that level of health requires not only good over-wintering success, but early-season forage for the bees as they are placed in and near the million-plus acres of almond trees planted in California from Red Bluff to Arvin.
PAm offers free seed mixes to growers interested in planting bee-friendly cover crops.
According to Synk, the bee forage seed mixes PAm provides can be planted pretty much anywhere, including along roadsides, orchard edges or anywhere a grower might want to put the flower and plant mixes.
Benefits of bee-friendly cover crops include:
- Improved and increased organic matter in the soil;
- Prevents erosion;
- Increases water infiltration into the soil;
- Increased soil nitrogen;
- Helps decompose “mummy” nuts;
- Supports soil fertility;
- Benefits other pollinators;
- Weed suppression; and,
- Nematode suppression
PAm has three different seed options for almond growers:
- A mustard mix;
- A clover mix; and,
- A single species of Lana vetch.
According to Synk, for every 1 percent of organic matter that is added to a soil profile, the water holding capacity of the soil grows by 19,000 gallons,
PAm also offers advice in planting bee-friendly hedgerows that can be used in concert with cover crops. Synk says the benefits of hedgerows include pollinator and wildlife habitat, reduced soil erosion and wind breaks.