Gino Favagrossa and cover crop workshop participants
Gino Favagrossa, left, and participants in a workshop of ground covers as bee forage.

Gino Favagrossa: Cover crops benefit almond orchard, bee health

California almond grower Gino Favagrossa realizes the benefits that come with improved bee health as they “anchor” their orchards with seed mixes that keep bees buzzing in orchards longer.

The mustard is in bloom and the clover is taking root between rows of almonds at Favagrossa Farms. The influx of millions of hives of bees from across the nation is just gearing up.

But the locals, home bees as it were, are already doing their thing in the yellow mustard bloom, something pleasing to the eye of Gino Favagrossa.

“There are several of them right there,” he said, pointing out the bees that are foraging in his cover crop, waiting for a special treat to come - almond blossoms.

Favagrossa was orchard and vineyard manager at Fresno State University for 24 years and is a longtime believer in cover crops. But, for him, the interest was spurred mostly for improving water infiltration and soil enrichment.

Now, he and others are realizing benefits that come with improved bee health as they “anchor” their orchards with seed mixes that keep bees buzzing in those orchards longer, and keep the bees from straying to another orchard or an alfalfa field where pesticides might harm them.

The Almond Board of California showcased cover crops being used for bee forage at three orchards in the state, including Favagrossa Farms.

Benefits of certain seed mixes for cover crops were discussed by Billy Synk, director of pollination programs for the nonprofit Project Apis m. (http://projectapism.org/), named for Apis mellifera, the scientific term for the European honeybee.

One of the more popular seed mixes includes three mustard plants and daikon radish, which sends a thick root into the soil to foster water penetration. That’s one of the seed combinations Favagrossa has planted between alternate rows. He believes the way the ground cover opens the soil explains why there is no water standing in his orchard.

Between other rows, Favagrossa has planted a mix including five types of clovers. Synk explained that through its “Seeds for Bees” program, Project Apis m. provides free seed mixes to growers. He said there are about 6,000 acres of cover crops in California almond orchards.

A third cover crop from the non-profit is Lana Vetch. Synk said cover crops help provide a more diverse diet for bees.

“The bees who feed on the forage weigh more and are more efficient foragers,” he said.

Each year, about 1.8 million colonies ae trucked into California from across the nation during almond bloom on some 900,000 acres. Many of the bees in those colonies may not have had access to forage until arrival in the state, Synk said.

The cover crops add organic matter that can hold water in the soil as a sponge would, he said. Some plantings also help to fix nitrogen in the soil. They also may increase presence of beneficial insects and prevent erosion.

If row plantings are not an option, growers can consider planting forage along orchard margins or in open fields nearby. Hedgerows, with their long bloom periods, are also an option.

Synk said the forage sources promote a pollen-collection cycle, keeping bees working and stimulated. This cycle motivates the queen to lay more eggs, he added, and the bees to collect even more pollen to feed their young.

Some have raised concerns about whether a blooming cover crop competes with almond blossoms, Synk said, who believes it doesn’t. The bees have a preference for high protein pollen from almonds and that “hard-to-get pollen on the cover crop, located on the ground is less appealing.”

He said the idea of having an “anchor crop” is sound.

“If your neighbor’s orchard has a cover crop and you don’t, the bees you paid for will spend time at the neighbor’s,” Synk said.

The mixes from the nonprofit have low moisture requirements.

But Favagrossa is quick to say that some years are better than others for growing cover crops.

“If you’re pumping all your water, it may not work for you,” he said.

“I don’t farm cover crops - I farm almonds,” Favagrossa said, adding that in some years there’s not enough water to sustain thriving cover crops. This year, with a series of storms boosting rainfall in recent weeks, is an exception.

Any cover crop between orchard rows must, of course, be removed to clear the way for harvest. By March 1, the mustard mix at Favagrossa Farms will be mowed. The clover will be cleared in May.

Favagrossa said planting the forage strips has helped foster good continuing relationships with three beekeepers, who are pleased that they can leave their bees in the orchard for about a month after the almond bloom has wrapped up.

Fewer citrus growers allow foraging by bees these days, he said, and beekeepers are glad to bide their time until they can move to other pollen sites elsewhere. 

Another Fresno County almond grower who has planted cover crops from Project Apis m. is Lakhy Sran at Sran Family Orchards. He was selected as this year’s winner of the U.S. Farm Rancher Award presented by the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, a program of the National Association of Conservation Districts. 

To date, the Sran family has planted more than 10 linear miles of flowering hedgerows with plants including bottlebrush, rosemary, and manzanita. Another 15 miles are currently being planted.

 

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