Did you hear that buzz in California's almond orchards?
It takes about two colonies per acre to pollinate California's 1.2 million acres of almonds. That's about 2.5 million bee colonies trucked here from throughout the country.
And now the 2020 almond pollination season, which began around Valentine's Day, is ending, not with a buzz, but with somewhat of a bang as growers worry about whether they'll have enough bees for next season.
In a Jan. 22 article in Ag Alert, assistant editor Christine Souza covered the situation well. In noting that California has some 1.2 million bearing acres of almond trees, she pointed out: "As another 300,000 almond acres come into production in the next few years, beekeepers and farmers say an additional 600,000 beehives will be needed for pollination. Achieving that could be somewhat daunting, as beekeepers report annual bee losses due to challenges such as reduced forage, the Varroa mite and pesticide-related issues."
In a forecast article published Jan. 6 in West Coast Nut on "2020 Almond Pollination Market: Economic Outlook and Other Considerations," Brittney Goodrich, assistant Cooperative Extension specialist, UC Davis Department of of Agricultural and Resource Economics, wrote that the total yield in pounds per acre is "projected at 1,880, down 10 percent from 2019 (United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) and California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), 2019). Not all of this was due to poor pollination, growers also experienced less than ideal weather conditions throughout the rest of the growing season."
Goodrich also mentioned that:
- "As of October 15, 2019, almond prices were between $2.63 to $2.98 per pound depending on the variety. Prices have remained fairly steady in this range since 2016 (Champetier, Lee, and Sumner, 2019). Almond returns per acre have also remained fairly steady since 2016, though these returns seem small when compared with the 2013-2015 time period with almond prices well above $3 per pound."
- "Pollination expenses as a percentage of operating costs have increased from 6.7 percent in 1998 to 20 percent in 2016 (Champetier, Lee, and Sumner, 2019)."
- "As expected, counties in the San Joaquin Valley have the highest amount of planted acreage."
- "With the exception of Contra Costa and Sacramento counties in Northern California, increases as a percentage of bearing acreage by county range from 0.2 percent to 6.5 percent of total bearing acreage. Contra Costa and Sacramento counties each saw increases over 40 percent, but combine for a total planted acreage of 217 acres in 2018."
- According to the California State Beekeepers' Association, "average almond pollination fees have gone up around $5 per colony per year since 2017. The range in fees seems to have grown over time, in 2019 there is more than a $60 difference per colony between the lowest and highest fee reported. From talking with others in the industry, the average fee of $195 in 2019 may be on the lower side. Fees for a majority of colonies likely ranged from $200 to $220 per colony in 2019."
Meanwhile, take a look at the honey bees foraging on an almond near the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, UC Davis campus.
Beekeeper Kelvin Adee, who hails from Bruce, isn't experiencing any of that right now.
He's in California--and so are his bees for the almond pollination season.
Adee is the president of the American Honey Producers' Association, which is meeting Jan. 7 through Jan. 12 for the 2020 North American Honey and Pollinator Summit and Trade Show at the Hyatt Regency, Sacramento.
Adee and other members of the executive board met Tuesday morning, Jan. 7 at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, Bee Biology Road, University of California, Davis, for a pre-conference session. They then participated in the ribbon-cutting ceremony and tour of the newly constructed USDA-ARS bee research facility, corner of Bee Biology and Hopkins roads. (See news story)
“Is it true that the national tree of South Dakota is the telephone pole?” we asked him during the luncheon.
He laughed and said the state does indeed have wide-open spaces. The population in Bruce is sparse, too. In fact, the 2019 census recorded the population at 204.
Bruce is the home of Honey Days Festival, held the last week of July. In fact, Adee Honey Farms, known as the world's largest producer of honey (and a prominent employer in town) inspired it.
But back to Kelvin Adee. He's a third-generation beekeeper. He actually lives in nearby Brookings but works out of the home office in Bruce.
His biosketch indicates: “Growing up in a commercial beekeeping family, Kelvin developed his interest in beekeeping at a young age, learning the business and the science from his father. As a third-generation beekeeper, he also gathered beekeeping knowledge from his grandfather, uncles and cousins who have been involved in beekeeping operations." Adee attended college in Bartlesville, Okla., receiving a bachelor's degree in business and accounting. and then returned to the beekeeping business. He has been actively involved in growing the business into an 80,000 colony farm operating in multiple states, according to the biosketch. He oversees the queen rearing/nuc operation in Mississippi and Texas along with company-wide honey production.
His biosketch also relates: “In addition to beekeeping, Kelvin has served on boards in various positions for the state beekeeping association and the national association. He is active in his community and his church and has served numerous years on the school board. Kelvin married his high-school sweetheart Darla and recently celebrated 37 years of marriage. They have four grown sons and five grandchildren. Three of Kelvin's sons have joined him working full time in the beekeeping business, and the fourth son works in crop production ag. He also enjoys working in the business with his father, Richard, brother, Bret and his sister Marla.”
Meanwhile, it's brrrr cold in Bruce, but here in the Davis area, it's warming up. Plants such as tidy tips, Kniphofia "Christmas Cheer" and manzanita are blooming on the UC Davis campus.
Almonds usually start blooming around Valentine's Day, heralding the beginning of almond pollination season. Hear that buzz? No? It's coming.
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 email@example.com 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.