Low growing grass cover crops offer several benefits to almond growers, and bees like them too, so bee experts are doing what they can to bring the two together.
A grower in the Kerman-Rolinda area of Fresno County, Calif. is at the forefront of the process by way of his unique background and acquaintance with both. Once a beekeeper, Gino Favagrossa produces almonds on160 acres of his own and manages 100 acres more for neighbors and friends.
He has been a believer in the soil-related benefits of cover crops in orchards since he planted them at the Fresno State farm, where he served as orchard manager. Now, in managing his and his neighbors’ orchards, the offer of free seed by those promoting bee stamina and health is one he can’t refuse.
The seeds are offered in blends to suit a grower’s soil, water, and cultural requirements, and to meet his preference for the time the grasses bloom.
Favagrossa prefers a strong blend of clover, and he prefers to plant before Halloween. Last fall’s early rains provided enough moisture for the grass to germinate well, although the lack of winter rain caused some stress.
Timing of the clover’s bloom, just before his almond trees bloom, is critical. He likes for the bees to be strong and well fed from foraging the grass blossoms, but he expects the bees to prefer the almond blossoms when they appear in late winter.
Another almond producer in Stanislaus County attracted the attention of neighbors plus the bees by including some wild mustard seed in the cover crop blend planted last fall. Bees in rented hives arrived to find acres of blossoming grasses where they foraged before focusing on blooming almond trees a few days later.
Christi Heintz, executive director of Project Apis m., the organization that provides the seed to cooperating almond growers, said about 150 growers are involved this year. The research effort she directs is designed to assist the bees, help them recover from some disease, and other challenges which have plagued bees for the past 10 years.
Better water penetration around the cover crop roots and general conditioning of the orchard soil is a side benefit for almond growers, on top of the attraction the cover crop blossoms offer to the bees.
Heintz told Modesto Bee reporter John Holland that 1.7 million bee boxes are delivered to California orchards each year to boost pollination of the state’s multi-million dollar almond crop.
She said the Apis m. project covers only about 3,000 of the state’s 860,000 acres of almonds so far, but plans are underway to expand the number.
Bees have not had it easy recently. Strange diseases and fungi have attacked them, and reduced their ranks. Growers know when they need to avoid spraying pesticides that might harm them.
Heintz and her colleagues at Project Apis m. are trying to give them all the help they deserve. They are not only hard working and tireless, but essential to the pollination of the state’s almond crop especially, and to several other crops as well.
Favagrossa in particular appreciates them, even if it was the toxin buildup from several stings that convinced him to terminate his tenure as a beekeeper. But his appreciation for them is strong, especially as they gather in his almond orchards.
The more he does to accommodate the bees with a blooming cover crop, the more he learns and likes about the benefits of an annual crop, its benefits to the soil, and to the general health of his orchards.
It’s almost worth an occasional bee sting.