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Beekeepers, Farmers Prepare
 for Pollination


photo of blooming orchard by JoAnne Green

Almond growers and beekeepers have their fingers crossed that apiarists from California and out of state can supply the state's 900,000 bearing acres of almond orchards with enough honeybees to pollinate and set this year's crop.

To do so, farmers and beekeepers are counting on having enough healthy honeybees—about 1.8 million beehives are needed to do the job.

Bob Curtis, director of agricultural affairs for the Almond Board of California, said concerns arise each year about whether there will be enough bees. Speaking at an Almond Board-led workshop in Woodland focused on bee health and pollination, Curtis described the annual pollination preparation as a balancing act.

"Over the last few years, we've had a sufficient supply of healthy bees for setting the crop," he said. "It's not a trivial issue and we're going to do everything we can to make sure that we've got that supply for pollination."

Much of Northern California has experienced above-average precipitation this winter, but by the time bloom begins in mid-February, almond growers hope the sun will shine long enough to allow bees to fly and do the job of pollination. Almond bloom usually begins in mid-February and continues until mid-March.

California State Beekeepers Association President Steve Godlin, a beekeeper from Tulare who recently returned from a honeybee conference in Texas, said beekeepers across the nation are reporting bee losses.

"We put the bees to bed in the winter with everything they need—big, strong hives—and still you have a percentage that just don't make it," Godlin said. "About a month ago, the amount of bees in the hive were the size of a basketball and now, they have dwindled down (in number)."

Beekeepers have attributed annual honeybee losses to a variety of factors, including lack of natural forage, drought, pest and disease problems such as the Varroa mite and damage related to application of crop-protection materials.

Many beekeepers have already moved at least two, eight-frame beehives into each acre of almonds. Godlin has started placing bees into almond orchards in Kings, Kern, Tulare, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. He said he hopes the bees "will do what they always do in the spring and start growing again."

Billy Synk, director of pollination programs at Project Apis m.—a group established by farmers and beekeepers to fund honeybee research—said he expects pollination to face challenges this year, as it does every year.

"I think the rain will cause some issues with moving hives in and out and in terms of supply, we always find that out as the bloom comes on," he said.

Project Apis m. operates a Seeds for Bees program, which offers almond growers seed mixes to plant cover crops that will help the orchard and provide bee forage. This year, Synk said, about 6,000 acres of cover crops have been planted in orchards in every almond-growing county in the state.

"We're sending out free cover-crop forage seed to almond growers so they can plant it, improve their soil and improve the health of their bees," he said. "This season, with all of the rain, one aspect of the cover crops is water infiltration, so rather than having water pool up on the top of the orchard floor after a rain event, it can follow the roots of these different cover crops."

Representing the host farm at the workshop last week, almond farmer Nick Edsall of Bullseye Farms explained to fellow growers the benefits of planting cover crops between the rows of his orchard.

"We've done soil health cover crops like triticale, but we got some vetch, clover and mustard crops to see if we can benefit the soil and the bees at the same time," said Edsall, who added that his beekeeper, who is supplying him with more than 5,000 hives, feels optimistic about the health of the hives.

Through the Seeds for Bees program, Synk said, Project Apis m. has seen "definite and significant and immediate improvements in colony health during the time that they are foraging on the cover crops."

"Based on hard data and anecdotal evidence, forage on the landscape—whether it be a California almond orchard or pasture in North Dakota—is beneficial to the nation's bees," he said.

While beekeepers try to improve the health of their hives, pollination season draws another type of pest—the beehive thief.

Early last week, beekeeper Valeri Strachan-Severson of Yuba City reported the theft of close to 500 beehives she had contracted from Montana. The white hives with gray-painted lids were stolen from a location in southwest Yuba City. At around the same time, a neighbor lost an additional 250 hives. Strachan-Severson estimated the loss of her bees at $250,000.

"I'm absolutely devastated," she said. "It appeared to be all planned out. The suspects had a night of opportunity that they came in and hauled them all out. You lose bees because of the viruses, the mites, the pathogens—the normal things—and then you've got something like this on top of it—it gets so discouraging."

Tips for preventing bee theft include:

  • Beekeepers should locate bees out of sight and off of the road, and mark hives, lids and frames with identifying information so that recovered bees can be traced back to their owner.

  • Farmers paying for pollination services should verify that colonies in the orchard or field match with the contract they have with their beekeeper.

CSBA offers up to $10,000 for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of persons responsible for stealing bees and/or beekeeping equipment belonging to a member of the association; learn more at castatebeekeepers@hotmail.com.


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