And it's definitely not a good time to be a honey bee.
The wind-whipped storms that are ravaging California are wreaking havoc on the state's almond pollination season, says honey bee guru Eric Mussen, Extension apiculturist emeritus, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, and president of the Western Apicultural Society.
The situation: California's million acres of almonds require two hives per acre for pollination. Without bees, no almonds.
Honey bees usually fly when temperatures reach around 55 degrees. During inclement weather, they hole up inside their hives. They're so unlike our postal workers who vow that “neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet” can stop mail delivery. Unfavorable weather for bees? Think "no-fly zone."
Mussen, California's Extension apiculturist for 38 years before retiring in 2014, continues to maintain an office in Briggs Hall, UC Davis, and respond to inquiries about honey bees. Not one to say "no," Mussen is serving a sixth term as president of the Western Apicultural Society (WAS), which was founded at UC Davis and gearing up for its 40th anniversary meeting Sept. 5-8 Davis.
And the steady rain we're having? How will that affect the pollination season?
“Rain," said Mussen, "is hard on the almond bloom for a few important reasons." He lists five reasons:
- Rain frequently is accompanied by cooler weather, which delays bloom. But, the delay can last only a short while, and then the flowers open and shed pollen, despite the weather. Honey bees usually neither forage on damp or wet blossoms, nor fly in the rain.
- If pollen grains come into contact with water, the water enters the openings in the pollen grains, through which the pollen tubes are supposed to emerge. The water is absorbed by the living protoplasm in the pollen grain and bursts its contents.
- Free water tends to transport spores of fungal, and sometimes bacterial, diseases to open flowers. Those microbes can invade the floral tissues, or in some cases, begin a journey through the flowers into the branches of the tree. When rain is imminent, growers usually will apply a fungicide to their trees to reduce the amount of infection. Frequent rains can promote multiple pesticide applications.
- By almond bloom time, honey bee colonies are collecting as much pollen as they can find, to feed an expanding brood nest. A prolonged period of inclement weather will interfere with nectar and pollen foraging, and leave little food to raise be brood. Lack of incoming pollens can reduce brood rearing, sometimes even to the point of the adult workers consuming most of the younger brood to save the nutrients for better times.
- Beekeepers who are used to seeing their colonies increase from 8-10 frames of bees to 10-12 frames during almond bloom may be disappointed this year due to a situation that is beyond their control. Providing supplemental feed can help their bees to a limited extent, but we have no supplemental feed that matches the nutritional value of mixed pollens.
Mussen says that native, solitary bee species, such as the blue orchard bee, also can be impacted negatively by continuous wet weather. “Foraging flight is curtailed, pollens and nectars are diluted or washed away, nesting sites can be flooded, and preferred or required floral sources may not be available that year,” he said. “This can have substantial negative impacts on the size of the following generation.”
Bottom line: it's not a good time for almond growers, beekeepers, and bees.
It's almond pollination season in California but the weather refuses to cooperate.
Heavy rains, high winds, intense flooding. What are the bees to do?
They're holed up in their hives, waiting for the sun breaks. When the rain stops pelting their hives and the temperature climbs to 50 or 55 degrees, they poke their heads out. Let's go, girls!
Such was the scenario today when we went for a drive along Pleasants Valley Road in Vacaville, Solano County. Feral almond trees, storm-battered but stubbornly bracing for more, are blooming, and those bees--those glorious bees--are back.
The statistics are a bit overwhelming. California now has one million commercial acres of almonds. It takes two colonies per acre to pollinate them. Without bees, no almonds. With beekeepers reporting winter losses of 40 to 60 percent, what's the situation?
"What does that mean for the bee supply for almond pollination?" asks pollination guru Gordon Wardell in the current edition of Project Apis m (PAm). The organization's name comes from Apis mellifera, the scientific name for the European honey bee. "At present, while individual beekeepers' numbers appear to be down, there doesn't appear to be a shortage of colonies for almond pollination this year. While the supply might be tight, I don't foresee major shortages. Rental prices are up this year, averaging $170 to $185 per colony. This is $10 to $15 over rental prices last year. These prices are fair increases considering the amount of feeding needed to ready the colonies for February pollination and the increases in transportation costs."
Wardell, chair of PAm's board of directors and the 2016 recipient of the California State Beekeepers' Association's Distinguished Service Award, knows bees, knows almonds, and knows pollination. A professional apiculturist for more than three decades and now director of pollination operations for Wonderful Orchards, he's a former Extension apiculturist for the state of Maryland. His research includes developing Mega-Bee, the honey bee nutritional supplement. He's authored numerous publications on honey bees. His expertise covers Varroa mite control, honey bee nutrition, fire ant monitoring, small hive beetle, Africanized honey bees, and many other topics.
Wardell describes what's happening in California now as "the greatest commercial pollination event in the world."
Because it is. Billions of bees pollinating a million acres of almonds.
On a minuscule scale, it's still marvelous to see a dozen bees foraging on a single feral almond tree...doing what bees do.
It's about other projects, too, from "A" to "Z."
And "B." Don't forget the honey bees.
Solano County's Tremont 4-H Club, Dixon, has just launched a beekeeping project, led by adult leader Sarah Anenson. It's a first-year project that's small in numbers but big in enthusiasm.
Her son, Ryan Anenson, 15, serves as the teen leader. Other members are Isabel Martinez, 12, and Caitlin Miller, 17.
They're learning about bees and sharing the information. Ryan crafted an informational display board, "Queen Bee, Star of the Hive," for the Solano County 4-H Project Skills Day, held recently in Vallejo, and responded to questions from his evaluators. Solano County 4-H Program representative Valerie Williams described Project Skills Day as an opportunity for 4-H'ers to share what they've learned and to gain experience in presentation and interaction skills.
One of the evaluators praised Anenson's presentation with: "Excellent presentation. You're knowledgeable and passionate on your subject. You were pleasant to talk to. Your eye contact, speaking ability and overall conversation was engaging and informative. We look forward to seeing you and your board at Presentation Day and beyond."
Sarah Anenson decided to launch the 4-H beekeeping project after walking to a local vintage fair and noticing an observation beehive surrounded by children of all ages. "They were fascinated by the bees and were a captive audience for hours--even our teenagers were mesmerized," she said. "It was then that we realized that a 4-H honey bee project would be beneficial for our youth. To help give our project a kick-start, we received our beehive and hive tools from our good friend, Mr. Don Ritchey."
She added: "We are currently raising only one colony, though we hope to raise more in the near future. One of our hopes is that we will receive bee hive and honey bee donations from our community. Raising honey bees, although highly beneficial, is costly to new beekeepers."
The Tremont 4-H'ers acquired their first honey bee colony last April from Breanna Sieferman of California Queen Bees, Woodland. The bees are now in a Dixon almond grove for pollination, which is expected to start around Feb. 14. "We are glad that our honey bees will help with the pollination of the almonds, but we are not seeking compensation," Anenson said. "We are simply happy to learn what we can about the honey bees, and at some point reap the rewards in honey."
Meanwhile, Ryan Anenson is getting ready to share his beekeeping project at another countywide event, the Solano County 4-H Presentation, to be held Saturday, Feb. 25 at Tremont Elementary School, 355 Pheasant Run Drive, Dixon. The event begins at 10 a.m. and visitors are welcome.
The Solano County 4-H Youth Development Program, part of the UC Cooperative Extension Program of the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR), follows the motto, “Making the best better.” 4-H, which stands for head, heart, health and hands, is open to youths ages 5 to 19. In age-appropriate projects, they learn skills through hands-on learning in projects ranging from arts and crafts, computers and leadership to dog care, poultry, rabbits and woodworking. They develop skills they would otherwise not attain at home or in public or private schools, said Williams, who may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for further information on the program. Solano County has 11 4-H clubs: Dixon Ridge 4-H, Maine Prairie 4-H, Roving Clovers 4-H and Tremont, 4-H, all of Dixon; Elmira 4-H, Pleasants Valley 4-H and Vaca Valley 4-H, all of the Vacaville area; Westwind 4-H and Suisun Valley 4-H, both of Fairfield-Suisun; Rio Vista 4-H of Rio Vista; and Sherwood Forest 4-H, Vallejo.
Have you ever asked Siri "How cold is it?"
Siri, a computer program known as Apple's "intelligent personal assistant" or "knowledge navigator," is part of Apple's Inc.'s iOS operating system. Folks usually ask Siri for directions. We ask about the weather AND directions.
So on Wednesday noon, Jan. 25, from our Vacaville "weather station," we picked up the Iphone and asked Siri: "How cold is it?'
"It's 53 degrees and I don't find that particularly cold," she said, maybe a little too fiesty. Siri is probably headquartered in Fairbanks, Alaska, where shivering residents experience -70 degrees in January. Or maybe she's based in Grand Forks or Fargo, N.D., where -40 degrees is considered a heat wave.
It's so cold in some of the cities in Alaska, North Dakota and Minnesota--how cold?--so cold that you have to open the refrigerator to heat the house. And, sometimes it's so cold that:
- you step outside and your shadow freezes
- you hear the police telling a robber to "freeze" and he does
- you bake a cake and set it out on the windowsill to cool and seconds later, it's frosted
- you talk to friends and your words freeze, so you have to pick up the letters and thaw them before continuing
- bees are begging to be smoked
So we walked outside to check the newly flowering oxalis for the presence of honey bees. Fifty-three degrees. Scientists tell us that honey bees don't usually fly when it's below 55 degrees, but we've seen bees flying at 50 degrees. So, between 50 and 55, that's a given.
The yellow oxalis seemed to be waiting. Any bees? Yes, one bee. She probably emerged from her hive, shivered a bit, and said to her fellow worker bees: "Let's go, girls!"--or something like that.
So we asked Siri "Do you like bees?"
"This is about you, Kathy, not me," she said.
The joy of the season strikes a chord.
When bees slip out of their California hives during winter sun breaks, they often head over to mallow blossoms to grab some nectar and pollen. A favorite is the tree mallow, Lavatera maritima “bicolor," native to Mediterranean regions of the world and California. The genus derives its name from Swiss botanist J.R. Lavater, who first discovered the species in Spain. The drought-tolerant plants, which can reach 12 feet in height, are perfect for gardeners challenging the California drought!
It doesn't take long for honey bees to discover the towering blossoms. The bees buzz in and out, battling for position, jockeying for the precious pollen. Then, laden with "gold dust," they linger in flight to clean their tongues for another go-around.
Bees, we can't get enough of them! Is it spring yet?
Meanwhile, let's fast-forward to May 2017. Mark your calendars for Saturday, May 6 and Sunday, May 7. On May 6 is the inaugural California Honey Festival in Woodland, and on May 7, the fourth annual UC Davis Bee Symposium.
The California Honey Festival, co-sponsored by the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, UC Davis, and the Woodland Hoteliers, is an all-day family festival that will take place on Main Street, Woodland.
“The California Honey Festival will be a great opportunity for guests to experience the full spectrum of honey flavor,” said Honey and Pollination Center director Harris, who is coordinating the festival's educational content. “Not all honey tastes the same! Like wine, varietals of honey flavors and aromas can be very distinct. We developed our Honey Flavor Wheel in 2015 to help teach people about the nuances of honey flavor.”
In addition to tasting honey, festival goers can learn about honey bees, their pollination services, and the health benefits of honey. They can sample specialty meads or “honey wine”; taste honey-inspired food and beverages, and purchase honey and bee-themed gifts. Other family friendly activities will include a bee-themed play structure for kids, cooking demonstrations featuring honey, and informational sessions on beekeeping basics and bee-friendly gardening. More information on the California Honey Festival, including sponsorships and vendor details, is available on the festival website, www.CaliforniaHoneyFestival.com
And the next day, Sunday, May 7, is the fourth annual Bee Symposium, co-sponsored by the Honey and Pollination Center and the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. The day-long event will focus on bee health and best management practices. It will feature keynote speakers, panel discussions, a luncheon, and a graduate student poster contest, among other activities. It's a mingling of bee scientists and researchers, beekeepers and others interested in bee health. Details are pending.