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.
The three "F's" win hands-down: family, friends and food.
But "insects" should definitely added to that list. They are among the tiniest of critters on this planet, but think of their importance in our lives and in our ecosystems.
As British entomologist-zoologist George McGavin, author, academician, explorer and television presenter wrote in an article published in 2004 in The Guardian: "They are the most successful multi-cellular life form on the planet...Insects have endured for hundreds of millions of years. They have survived the numerous global upheavals and catastrophes that spelled the end for much greater and grander creatures and they will continue to be a major part of the Earth's fauna for many more millennia."
McGavin, an honorary research associate at both the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Oxford Department of Zoology, points out that insects are "the food of the world."
"Most of the higher animal species on Earth eat insect--they are the food of the world," he writes in his piece on Why I Love Insects. "All of the blue tit chicks in the British Isles alone consume 35bn caterpillars before they become adult. A single pipistrelle bat, the smallest bat species in the UK, has to eat between 2,000 and 3,000 insects most nights to stay alive."
McGavin also emphasizes the importance of pollinators and recyclers, that "we depend on bees for perhaps as much as a third of the food we eat....As recyclers, flies and beetles devour carcasses and clear prodigious quantities of dung every day."
We met George McGavin in July 2012 at a sunflower field in Winters. He and his crew were there to film a documentary on ultimate swarms, featuring Norm Gary, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis. Gary, an author, scientist and now a retired professional bee wrangler, clued him in on bee behavior.
Like many scientists, McGavin loves to share his enthusiasm for insects, something we all need to appreciate more and to support as much as we can. For example, the Entomological Society of America launched a Chrysalis Fund to bring insect education into the classroom. According to the website, it's "supported by donors dedicated to the mission of enhancing insect education for K-12 students. Teachers and educators with creative ideas for insect-themed programs or projects are encouraged to apply for funding." (On a side note, UC Davis distinguished professor Walter Leal donated his $1000 honorarium from the recent ESA Founders' Memorial Award Lecture to the Chrysalis Fund. See YouTube video.)
So, what are we thankful for? Family, friends and food, for sure.
And the list also includes...insects.
So do honey bees.
“Honey bees exhibit complex social behavior that rivals our own,” internationally recognized honey bee geneticist Robert E. Page Jr., recipient of the 2019 UC Davis Distinguished Emeritus Professor Award told the crowd at his BrainFood Seminar Nov. 14 in the Walter A. Buehler Alumni Center.
Speaking on “The Social Contract: How Complex Social Behavior Evolve," Page said that it is "fundamentally bound within a social contract much like ours that makes the basic social structure inescapable, a consequence of living together in family groups. Social structures evolve by natural selection operating on the final product, the colony as a reproductive unit. The structures themselves are reverse engineered.”
In his talk, Page showed how selection on the economy of the colony shapes structures from nest and social architecture to gene networks. UC Davis Emeriti Association and the UC Davis Retirees' Association sponsored the program.
"It is likely that this was the first talk ever to link the U.S. Constitution's 'We the People' to the theory of social evolution in insects," said colleague UC Davis distinguished professor James R. Carey of the Department of Entomology and Nematology.
Page is known for his research on honey bee behavior and population genetics, particularly the evolution of complex social behavior. One of his most salient contributions to science was to construct the first genomic map of the honey bee, which sparked a variety of pioneering contributions not only to insect biology but to genetics at large.
Page is not only a UC Davis Distinguished Emeritus Professor, but a Arizona State University (ASU) Regents Professor Emeritus and ASU University Provost Emeritus. Page chaired the Department of Entomology from 1999 to 2004, when Arizona State University recruited him to be the founding director of the School of Life Sciences of Arizona State University (ASU). His ASU career advanced to dean of Life Sciences; vice provost and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; and university provost.
Born and reared in Bakersfield, Kern County, Rob received his bachelor's degree in entomology, with a minor in chemistry, from San Jose State University in 1976. After obtaining his doctorate from UC Davis in 1980, he served as assistant professor at The Ohio State University before joining the UC Davis entomology faculty in 1989 as an associate professor. He began working closely with Harry H. Laidlaw Jr., (the father of honey bee genetics) for whom the university's bee facility is named. Together they published many significant research papers.
At UC Davis, he maintained a honey bee-breeding program for 24 years, from 1989 to 2015, managed by bee breeder-geneticist Kim Fondrk at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility. They discovered a link between social behavior and maternal traits in bees. Their work was featured in a cover story in the journal Nature. In all, Nature featured his work on four covers from work mostly done at UC Davis.
Page and his lab pioneered the use of modern techniques to study the genetic basis of social behavior evolution in honey bees and other social insects. He was the first to employ molecular markers to study polyandry and patterns of sperm use in honey bees. He provided the first quantitative demonstration of low genetic relatedness in a highly eusocial species.
His work has garnered a significant impact in the scientific community through his research on the evolutionary genetics and social behavior of honey bees. He was the first to demonstrate that a significant amount of observed behavioral variation among honey bee workers is due to genotypic variation. In the 1990s, he and his students and colleagues isolated, characterized and validated the complementary sex determination gene of the honey bee; considered the most important paper yet published about the genetics of Hymenoptera. The journal Cell featured their work on its cover. In subsequent studies, he and his team published further research into the regulation of honey bee foraging, defensive and alarm behavior.
Page has authored than 250 research papers, including five books: among them “The Spirit of the Hive: The Mechanisms of Social Evolution,” published by Harvard University Press in 2013. He is a highly cited author on such topics as Africanized bees, genetics and evolution of social organization, sex determination, and division of labor in insect societies. His resume shows more than 18,000 citations.
Highly honored by his peers, Page is a fellow of a number of organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the California Academy of Sciences, the Entomological Society of America, and organizations in Germany and Brazil. He received the Alexander von Humboldt Senior Scientist Award, known at the Humboldt Prize, the highest honor given by the German government to foreign scientists. He received the 2018 Thomas and Nina Leigh Distinguished Alumni Award from UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
Page is the second bee specialist from the Department of Entomology to receive the prestigious Distinguished Emeritus Professor award. Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp (1933-2019) received the UC Davis Distinguished Emeritus Professor Award in 2015. A global authority on bees known for his research, teaching, mentoring and public service, Thorp co-authored Bumble Bees of California: An Identification Guide (2014, Princeton University Press) and California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (2014, Heyday Books)./span>
It's Veterans' Day, and after paying tribute to the military veterans (my ancestors have fought in all of our nation's wars, dating back to the American Revolution--and my other half is a U.S. Air Force veteran), I slip out the back door to our pollinator garden to see where the insect action is.
Honey bees and a sole carpenter bee are buzzing on the African blue basil; Gulf Fritillaries are nectaring on the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia); and a cabbage white butterfly is sipping nectar from the Lantana.
But the passionflower vine (Passiflora) steals the show. A Gulf Fritillary has just eclosed from a chrysalis that resembles a thick wad of gum chewed up and spit out and left to mummify; several male Gulf Frits are fluttering around in search of females; and the offspring of previous reunions are crawling on the stems and munching what's left of the leaves.
Overhead, the California scrub jays glance down, as if trying to decide on their luncheon menu: a fat juicy caterpillar or the bird seed scattered in the feeder.
Their choice is clear. They forsake the fat juicy caterpillars for the bird seed. Tomorrow morning, however, there will be several caterpillars missing in action.
The next UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology seminar will focus on just that.
Brock Harpur, assistant professor, Department of Entomology, Purdue University, will speak on "Beekeeping in the 21st Century: Can We Incorporate Genomics into Beekeeping?" at 4:10 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 6 in 122 Briggs Hall.
Host is Santiago Ramirez, associate professor, UC Davis Department of Evolution and Ecology, College of Biological Sciences.
"Humans and honey bees (Apis mellifera) have a long history of interaction one that today has culminated in the multibillion dollar beekeeping industry," Harpur says in this abstract. "Our history with honey bees is signposted by innovation driven by beekeepers. Innovations such as moveable frames and instrumental insemination have transformed how beekeepers manage their colonies. The modern beekeeper is likely to find that the innovations of today will become industry-standard in the not-so-distant future."
In his seminar Harpur will demonstrate "how the study and application of genomics provide new tools to understand honey bees and new means to manage and conserve them. I will present two direct uses of genomic information in modern apiculture: stock identification and genetic association. First I will demonstrate that genomic information can be used to quantify the ancestry of honey bee populations around the world. I will demonstrate how genomic information can be used to robustly discriminate among genotypes and how this can be incorporated into management practices. Second, I demonstrate how genomic approaches can identify loci associated with industry-relevant traits and how these associations can be used in an industry context. These discoveries represent the first steps that the beekeeping industry has taken into the modern age of genomics."
Harpur joined Purdue University faculty in January 2019 after completing a National Science and Engineering Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at the Donnelley Centre, University of Toronto. He focuses his research on the evolution and genetics of honey bees.
"Brock has always been interested in insects and genetics, but after his first foray into beekeeping, he was hooked (stung, if you will)," according to the Purdue News Service. "Brock completed his Ph.D. on population genomics of honey bees at York University. He has established beekeeping programs in Northern Canada, worked with the City of Toronto to establish goals for pollinator health, and given public talks to dozens of local organizations. Brock was awarded the prestigious Julie Payette Research Scholarship from the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada, an Ontario Graduate Scholarship, the Entomological Society of Canada's President's Prize, and was an Elia Research Scholar during his time at York University. Brock and his wife Katey are new to the United States from Canada."