- Author: Michelle Davis
About 10 years ago, I read (well, technically listened to) Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. She wrote about her family enduring one year of being hardcore locavores. I remember how difficult it was for her adolescent daughter who was unable to get fruit during winter in their Virginia home in Appalachia. There was no local fruit in winter. When rhubarb was the first to arrive at the farmers market in the early spring, her daughter's entire focus became eating the first fruit she had had in months. Rhubarb is wind-pollinated, but it made me wonder what plants are specifically honey-bee pollinated, and if the food the Kingsolver family ate for that year was all truly locavore. Were the fruits and vegetables, that were honey-bee pollinated, pollinated by local honey bees or were the bees from some other part of the country? What about the animals and animal products (dairy) they ate –did the animal feed contain alfalfa pollinated by local or trucked-in honey bees?
What got me thinking about this in the first place was looking at all the bee boxes in the orchards I passed in the last few weeks in Solano, Yolo, Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Stanislaus counties. I started looking at the addresses that were on the boxes. Some bee boxes were not marked at all, just plain white boxes. Some, to differentiate theirs from someone else's I suppose, had latticework trim. I found some that were elaborately painted all different colors and designs. I found addresses from Utah, Arizona, Washington State, and Idaho. I did find some from Vacaville.
At one ranch just outside of Modesto, I talked to one almond orchard owner. I asked her about the bee boxes she had between her barn and the trees. She said the beekeeper dropped the boxes as far apart in the orchard as needed in the middle of the night, and he would pick them up in the middle of the night after pollination was accomplished. She wasn't aware that the bees pollinating her trees were from Huston, Idaho. She did know that she and her husband might not need as many bees in the future. A new almond called Independence developed by Floyd Zaiger (Zaiger Genetics of Modesto) a few years ago is self-pollinated, although it will produce more almonds with a few bees. Instead of 2 boxes per acre of almonds, a rancher could get by with just ½ bee box per acre. The downside to the tree is that the tree needs to be shaken more vigorously to get the nuts off the tree in the fall than the older tree varieties and that shaking could shorten the tree's lifespan. It sounded like she and her husband were considering planting this variety in the future.
It occurred to me that a result of more ranchers making this decision could be less honey production and a higher cost for that honey. I read that for one pound of honey, a beehive collectively has to fly 55,000 miles and drop in on about two million flowers. Usually, a single worker honey bee will fly up to 2 miles from the hive and rarely up to 6 miles to get what she's after. All that work for one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime. It also occurred to me that a hedgerow of bee-friendly plants could accomplish the pollination of these new almond trees without having to truck in bees from all over the Western US. Local honey! Maybe hedgerows of bee-friendly plants were how the Kingsolvers' food was pollinated. Maybe it all was really in its entirety, locally-grown, and locally-produced food.
It's something to think about while driving the highways and byways of the Sacramento and Central Valleys looking at acres and acres of blooming almond trees, snow-like almond blossom petals on the ground and bee boxes from distant places.