At last, the Laidlaw almonds are in bloom.
That would be the almond trees on the grounds of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road at the University of California, Davis.
And no one appreciates this more than the bees holed up in the 40 hives behind the facility. The bees are getting ready for the big spring build-up, and what's a spring build-up without almonds?
The bees are hungry. Very hungry. If you take a photo of the almond blooms, you'll see how hungry they are. Sometimes you get five bees in one photo.
So, it was with great interest that we read a news story in today's Business Journal, Fresno, that was headlined "New Almond Promises Independence from Bees."
Independence, you ask? Are bees declaring their independence from almonds? No. The piece in The Business Journal concerned the "Independence almond." Wrote reporter Chuck Harvey in the lede: "The Independence almond — a self-fertile variety needing few bees to produce numerous large nuts — is creating a buzz among almond growers."
"Created by Zaiger Genetics Inc., the Independence almond was released in 2008. Dave Wilson Nursery, which holds the patent on the trees, has a producing Independence almond orchard in Modesto."
Basically, it's an early-blooming, self-fertile almond described in the news story as "a large high-grade commercial quality almond with a soft shell," according to the CEO of Dave Wilson Nursery. And it "blanches well."
You'll want to read more about it, and what the Almond Board of California, beekeepers, and growers have to say about it.
One thing's for sure: we need stronger, healthier bees, or we'll all in trouble.
Valentine's Day traditionally marks the beginning of almond pollination season, but it's an early spring. The almonds are blooming and the bees are buzzing.
So, first the tweets, then the buzzes.
CNN Money, New York, came out Feb. 7 with a news story headlined "Honeybee Die-Off Shouldn't Sting." The Almond Board linked to it in its tweet.
The piece, written by Steve Hargreaves, explored the "good news and bad news on the honeybee beat."
Hargreaves said that colony collapse disorder (CCD) continues to claim about 30 percent of the nation's bees every winter. That's the bad news. The good news, he said, is that "beekeepers have been able to rejuvenate their hives each year so that by summer, the population is back to previous levels."
And "another bit of good news," Hargreaves pointed out, is that although agricultural yields are rising and "rejuvenating beehives is costly," the higher costs aren't being transferred in the supermarket.
Hargreaves quoted UC Davis agricultural economist Daniel Sumner as saying "It shouldn't be a significant item on the radar screen of consumers. It's not that big of a deal."
So, there you have it. Bees are in trouble. Almond production is up (about 750,000 acres in California and each acre requires two hives for pollination). And, demand for almonds is up. California now produces 80 percent of the world's almonds.
Meanwhile, honey bee guru and Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology, is repeatedly asked "How are the bees doing?" He writes a bi-monthly from the UC Apiaries newsletter and the periodic Bee Briefs, both posted on the Department of Entomology website.
Mussen attributes CCD (a mysterious malady characterized by adult bees abandoning the hive) to a combination of factors, including parasites, pesticides, pests, diseases, malnutrition and stress.
It continues to amaze us, however, what some folks think is causing CCD. They're looking for a silver bullet. There is none.
The arguments can get ugly. As debates continue to rage in the CNN Money commentary section, one reader, obviously exasperated, posted "...the writers in this place don't know anything about the realms of science, economics or ecology. And 90 percent of the posters aren't very bright, either."
Meanwhile, the bees are busy pollinating almonds.
A sure sign that winter is nearly over: when the flowering quince bursts into bloom, attracting a flotilla of foraging honey bees.
Actually, the bees began "inspecting" the flowering quince in the bud stage. "Hurry, open up!" the bees seemed to urge. "We have to start feeding our colonies."
Flowering quince (genus Chaenomeles, family Rosaceae) is an ornamental plant that's delightful to see. Who doesn't admire the soft pink blossoms and the comforting hum of bees buzzing around with heavy loads of yellow pollen?
The nation's bees, though, are still in trouble. Overwintering losses are still around 30 percent as in the years past, honey bee experts say. Bees are still suffering from colony collapse disorder (CCD), a mysterious malady characterized by adults bees abandoning the hive. CCD is thought to be the result of multiple factors, including pesticides,pests, diseases, malnutrition and stress.
As Christi Heintz, executive director of Project Apis m. (as in Apis mellifera), told the Almond Board of California at its meeting in December: “Colony losses are not quite as acute as in previous years, mainly as a result of improved management, but overwintering losses still hover around 30 percent, an unsustainable rate of loss.”
Heintz, who is the Almond Board Bee Task Force liaison, listed seven areas for best management practice (BMP) development: bee nutrition, pest control/varroa, disease control/nosema, hive mangement/equipment, colony management, business management, and BMPs for almond growers/bee rentals.
You can read the entire BMP article in Bee Culture.
Project Apis m. or PAm, serves an important role. Beekeepers and orchardists established PAm in December 2006, as a "New Vision" to fund honey bee research on managed colonies, according to its website. The organization's goal: "to fund and direct research to improve the health and vitality of honey bee colonies while improving crop production. Emphasis is placed on research studies that have realistic and practical usefulness for beekeeping businesses."
"PAm brings together representatives of the American Honey Producers Association (APHA), the American Beekeeping Federation (ABF), the National Honey Board (NHB), California State Beekeepers Association (CSBA), and California almond farmers. PAm includes representatives from both the pollination and crop production enterprises."
Together we can all do our part to help save the bees. The first step: awareness.
This year, however, thanks to the unseasonably warm weather, almond trees began blooming in late January in some parts of Central California.
Take the city of Benicia. Its temperate climate is conducive to early spring. Today as the temperature climbed to 58 degrees, we saw almond blossoms everywhere--at the entrance to Benicia State Park, in residential yards, in fields and meadows, and lining city streets and roads.
Benicia resident Gordon Hough, who owns and skippers the sports fishing boat, The Morning Star, didn't go fishing for sturgeon and bass today, but he did go jogging in Benicia State Park. On his way home, he stopped to check an almond tree for honey bees.
No bees. But one ant.
It should be a great year for almonds. The USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service projects a record 2600-pounds-per-acre yield for the 2011-2012 California almond crop. That represents an increase of 200 pounds per acre, or 8 percent, over the previous yield-per-acre record set in 2008-2009, the NASS officials said.
This is what the California Almond Board had to say in its September 2011 newsletter: "The California Almond objective forecast for the 2011–12 crop year is 1.95 billion meat pounds, which is based on 750,000 bearing acres. Overall, shipments were up 13 percent, reaching 1.668 billion pounds and marking the fifth consecutive year of record shipments across domestic and export markets.
"For the second year, California shipped over 1 billion pounds to export destinations, an increase of 15 percent over 2010–11. Domestic shipments were up 9 percent over the previous year, at 490 million pounds. The top five export destinations (China, Spain, Germany, India and the United Arab Emirates) account for approximately 53 percent of total export shipments, while the top 10 destinations account for over 72 percent of export shipments. For the first time, China became the leading export destination, with shipments rising by 26 percent to reach 168 million pounds."
Meanwhile, it takes two hives per acre to pollinate California's 750,000 acres. The bees, trucked here from all over the country, are in holding yards and ready to go.
The orchards will be abuzz soon with millions of bees pollinating the blossoms.
A "she bee" on a hebe.
That has a nice ring to it.
It was Jan. 7, an unseasonably warm day for winter and we decided to take advantage of it by driving to the Loch Lomond Marina in San Rafael.
Gardeners do a good job tending the plants that border the marina and the honey bees do a good job of gathering nectar and pollen.
One of the plants popular among the bees is hebe (genus Hebe), an evergreen shrub that probably derives its name from Hebe, the goddess of youth (Greek mythology). A native of New Zealand, this plant is quite hardy, and some varieties bloom during the winter.
There's even a Hebe Society that promotes "the cultivation and conservation of hebes and other New Zealand native plants." Founded in 1985, it's a British registered charity. According to its website, the Hebe Society "is affiliated to the Royal Horticultural Society, New Zealand Alpine Garden Society and Tatton Garden Society. Most members are in the British Isles, but some are in the rest of Europe, North America and New Zealand."
Although the "she bees" (worker bees) forage on the hebe, the "he bees" (drones) eventually derive the benefits via the food brought back to the colony. So, the "she bees" and the "he bees" draw nourishment from the hebes.
That is, when the colony starts producing the "he bees."