Take Benicia, Solano County. Its little hot spots near the Carquinez Strait--think trees growing near sun-warmed asphalt--yield early almond blooms, often as early as New Year's Day.
At the Matthew Turner Park in Benicia, today, honey bees buzzed around the almond blossoms, gathering pollen and nectar. But the honey bees were not alone.
Yellow-faced bumble bees, Bombus vosnesenskii, were foraging, too. It's always a treat to see honey bees in the almonds, but it's a double treat to see a bumble bee.
Pollination of California's almond acreage is as intense as it is huge. The 2016 almond acreage totaled 1.2 million acres--940,000 bearing and 300,000 acres non-bearing, according to a report issued in April 2017 by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, in cooperation with the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This year, California has more than a million acres of bearing almonds, and each acre requires two bee hives for pollination. The leading almond-producing counties? Kern, Fresno, Stanislaus, Merced and Madera.
Solano County, of course, doesn't make the list, but when you want to see the early almond blooms, it's the place to "bee."
Which reminds us of the research, Synergistic Effectgs of non-Apis Bees and Honey Bees for Pollination Services, published by an international team of scientists in the Jan. 10, 2013 edition of The Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The researchers, including pollination ecologist Neal Williams of UC Davis, found that honey bees are more effective at pollinating almonds when other species of bees are present.
When blue orchard bees and wild (non-managed) bees such as bumble bees, carpenter bees and sweat bees, are foraging in almonds with honey bees, the behavior of honey bees changes, resulting in more effective crop pollination, said lead author Claire Brittain, then of the Neal Williams lab. She earlier worked as a post-doctoral fellow at Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany.
“These findings highlight the importance of conserving pollinators and the natural habitats they rely on,” Brittain told us in a news release. “Not only can they play an important direct role in crop pollination, but we also show that they can improve the pollination service of honey bees in almonds.”
Agroecologist Alexandra-Maria Klein, now a professor at Leuphana University, served as the project lead while a postdoctoral fellow in the UC Berkeley lab of conservation biologist/professor Claire Kremen. In fact, Klein and Kremen initiated the project in 2008 and continued working on the project together in 2009 and 2010. Williams joined the team in 2010.
Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, now a distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, identified 50 different species that the team found. They included bumble bees, small carpenter bees, sweat bees, digger bees, mining bees and blue orchard bees.
Take a look around you during the almond pollination season. The honey bees are not alone.
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.
For her news story, reporter Jenny Starrs interviewed "Bee Detective" Jay Freeman of the Butte County Sheriff's Office (he's a detective all year long but a "bee detective" during almond pollination season and he also keeps bees).
"At the start of pollination season in 2010, the average hive cost $130 to rent," Starrs wrote. "Rental fees are $200 this year, and will continue going up as hives continue to die off. The industry is becoming increasingly volatile, increasingly expensive and thus, increasingly criminalized."
In past years, we remember hearing about several hives stolen here, several hives stolen there, and a few more over there. But now bee hive thievery is rampant. Detective Freeman reported hundreds of hives stolen and cited the numbers: 240 from an operation in Colusa County, 64 from an operation in Butte, 280 in Sutter County...the list seems endless.
The California State Beekeepers' Association has now set up Bee Theft Alerts on its web page.
It's good to see that the CSBA is offering a reward up to $10,000 for the arrest and conviction of persons stealing CSBA members' bees or equipment. CSBA is also encouraging beekeepers to report the thefts, no matter how small.
It's working. The Butte County Sheriff's Office arrested a suspect Feb. 6 and charged him with stealing 64 bee hives from Olivarez Honey Bees Inc. in Chico and trucking them to a Stanislaus County almond orchard.
Extension apiculturist emeritus Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology--his career spanned 38 years--told us last week that apparently beekeepers or people with beekeeping knowledge are stealing the hives. "Maybe they used to work for some of these beekeeping operations, and know where the hives are," he said. So, in the dead of the night, the thieves are moving in the big trucks and forklifts, hauling them away, and then renting them to unsuspecting almond growers. The culprits pocket the money and never return for "their" colonies.
“Most people, when they lose their hives, figure they're never going to get found,” California State Beekeepers' Association media director Joy Pendell told Starrs. “It's very frustrating for us, because we go all winter without any income. So we put all this money and work into them for months, and we're about to have our payday and someone just goes and steals it.”
The Bee Culture journal, edited by Kim Flottom, has also sounded the alert.
"If you have had any hives stolen within the last couple years, please email Joy Pendell directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with brand numbers, a description and pictures," Flottum wrote. "The California State Beekeepers would like to create a complete history of hive theft in our industry to share with law enforcement and interested media outlets. If you know of a theft victim who is not a CSBA member, please pass along this information so they can report as well. The CSBA represents the interests of all California beekeepers plus they would like to create a summary of bee theft both inside and outside of our organization."
At a recent meeting of the California Bee Breeders' Association that we attended in Ordbend, Glenn County, members talked about stepping up patrols and recruiting volunteers to monitor remote areas at night and early morning.
Just call it "The Sting" operation.
Unfortunately, all this bee thievery may worsen. Gordy Wardell recently reported in the Project Apis m newsletter that California's total number of almond acreage is now at 1 million.
We've been watching the almonds budding and blossoming since late January.
They're in full bloom now, but a little ragged by the recent rain.
California has some 750,000 acres of almonds, and it takes two hives per acre to pollinate them.
Since California doesn't have that many bees, beekeepers from all over the country--from Florida to South Dakota to Washington state--truck in the little agricultural workers.
We asked Extension Apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology, just how many California-based hives are in the state's almond orchards. That is, how many are "residents" and how many are "migratory."
Being a honey bee guru--after all, he's been with the department since 1976--Mussen knew the answer.
"About 500,000 hives of the 2.6 million hives now pollinating California's almond orchards live here," he said.
As we checked out a spectacular almond orchard on Pitt School Road, Dixon, we stopped to ponder the numbers: 750,000 acres of almonds (and increasing yearly) and 2.6 million hives for pollination services. The bees forage within four miles from their colony, or within a 50-mile radius, Mussen says.
In the almond orchards, they don't have far to go.
California is known as the "The Golden State," but this time of year, it's never been so true. The "gold" is the pollen that the bees are transferring from blossom to blossom in the almond orchards.
Hear the buzz in the California almond orchards?
It's almost pollination time.
The season usually begins around Feb. 1. This year California has some 750,000 acres of almonds, and each acre requires two bee colonies to pollinate.
That's 1.2 million colonies needed to pollinate the almonds, according to honey bee guru Eric Mussen, Extension apiculturist with the UC Davis Department of Entomology.
Since California doesn't have that many colonies--the number is around 500,000--the remainder must come from beekeepers outside the state.
Christine Souza of Ag Alert, the weekly newspaper for California agriculture, wrote in the Jan. 19th edition that pollinating the state's $3.2 billion crop is not without problems: thieves steal bee hives. Beekeeper Brian Long, Madera County, reported losing 400 colonies last month, a total loss of $120,000, Souza said.
To thwart thieves, beekeepers brand their names and phone numbers on their boxes. (We know a beekeeper who also brands his driver's license.)
It's a good idea to store hives behind enclosed and locked gates, the Ag Alert article noted, and "to give nearby property owners descriptions of your vehicles so that they can report any suspicious activity or vehicles."
Perhaps those Hollywood producers looking for story ideas could take what's happening in the bee yards and film another version of "The Sting."