The Almond Board of California (ABC) has long made research a cornerstone to provide industry-wide benefits in production and marketing. Commitment to horticultural research by the ABC has progressed continuously for 35 years. This research has led to the development of new varieties and rootstocks, improvements in management practices such as irrigation, pest and disease control, and many other improvements that have allowed the almond industry to climb from yields of 500 pounds per acre to over 3,000 pounds per acre in some areas.

The single most important factor determining almond yield is pollination during the bloom period. Almonds are self-incompatible and therefore require pollen from one variety to be transported to another variety via an insect vector in order to produce a crop. Over 1.2 million colonies of honeybees are required to pollinate this crop alone, with California beekeepers supplying about half that need. Thus, honeybees travel from throughout the United States to California for almond pollination, some coming from as far away as Florida.

“Growers must allocate 20 percent or more of their operating expenses to hive rental,” explains Dan Cummings, Chico almond grower and chairman of the ABC's Bee Task Force. “It wasn't that long ago when hive rental was just 8 percent of my overall expenses.”

Honey bee research

The ABC recognizes the industry's dependence on honeybees for pollination and contributes its share to pollination research. The ABC has funded research that has:

  • Developed guidelines on hive strength and numbers for sufficient pollination.

  • Assessed honeybee flight patterns and behaviors to better understand pollination of individual almond blossoms.

  • Tracked the spread of Africanized honeybees northward into the United States from Mexico.

  • Led to a better understanding of why Africanized honeybees usurp European honeybee colonies.

  • Helped beekeepers understand and control pests and diseases such as varroa mite and American foulbrood disease.

  • Assisted in preventing the widespread importation of unwanted pests such as red imported fire ant and small hive beetle accompanying colonies traveling to California.

Slightly less than 20 percent of the ABC's current production research budget is devoted to pollination research. In December 2004, with pollination becoming greater than 10 percent of the total research budget, the board's Production Research Committee appointed a subcommittee to make pollination research recommendations to the committee. The subcommittee, called the Bee Task Force, consists of two almond grower representatives, two beekeeper representatives and two representatives from the research community. The researchers are from the University of California and the USDA-ARS.

Pests, nutrition, and alternate pollinators

Current pollination research projects include studies to combat varroa mite with essential oils and oxalic acid, assistance with sampling and evaluation for colony collapse disorder (CCD), honeybee nutrition, and pollination by blue orchard bees. These projects will yield both short-term and long-term benefits in almond pollination. In the short-term, ABC funding will serve to determine effectiveness of compounds and treatments to reduce varroa populations. Analytical tests are currently under way to determine the factors causing CCD. In the longer term, the effect of transportation stress on honeybees over time, feeding regimens that lead to healthier colonies, and pollination by alternative pollinators will all be advanced in terms of the available knowledge base.

ABC-funded research has yielded important new products now available to beekeepers. Understanding that research and development requires significant funding from many different sources, almond growers should still be aware that their contribution to research has, in part, led to new commercially-available products. Essential oils are now readily available and widely used to combat varroa mite. The two latest products are a new bee feed and a brood pheromone to enhance brood production.

MegaBee

MegaBee, sometimes referred to as the Tucson Bee Diet, was developed by way of a cooperative research and development agreement between Dr. Gordon Wardell, SAFE Research and Development, LLC, and the USDA-ARS Carl Hayden Bee Lab in Tucson, Ariz. The ABC has assisted in funding this project at the USDA lab for several years because of its potential to build colonies for the early almond pollination season.

In feeding tests last fall, colonies fed MegaBee showed superior health and brood development. “Looking at the growth curves for brood production, they were higher for MegaBee than other bee supplements and even natural pollen,” says developer Wardell. “It may add some input cost, but the beekeeper and eventually the almond grower will get more bees for their buck.”

As of August, this product is now being manufactured and distributed, and could help to solve at least the nutritional stress component of factors leading to CCD. Look for MegaBee to impact honeybee health this coming pollination season.

Super-Boost

After many years of interest and funding, the ABC is also pleased to learn that a pheromone product is now available to stimulate brood production. Increased brood leads to increased foraging to raise the brood, and thus increased pollination activity.

“It's been almost 10 years to the day that we took pheromone extract off larvae and now finally have a product,” says Dr. Tanya Pankiw, Texas A&M University. After working for many years at UC-Davis, then in Texas, where Pankiw received funding from the ABC at both locations, she and a partnering company have worked out the final two hurdles in R&D: 1) stabilizing the product, and 2) developing a suitable pheromone-release device.

“At one point I went to an ABC annual conference and heard in a bee seminar the desperation of beekeepers trying to keep hives alive and healthy for the huge almond pollination season, yet frustrated with the pace of the R&D process,” Pankiw explained. “I cancelled a bunch of local beekeepers' meetings, went back to the lab, and worked non-stop to get this product out as soon as I could. That meeting had a big effect on me.”

Pankiw alludes to the frustration of trying to find a company interested in taking the risk on a new product. After all, the beekeeping market is not as big as some other agricultural markets. And, unlike Wardell, who had his own entrepreneurial company assuming the R & D risk for MegaBee, Pankiw had to search until she partnered with a Canadian Company, Pherotech International, which produces and markets Super-Boost.

“It's taken a long time, but we've finally got a product now where tests show application of the pheromone increases foraging 30 percent to 40 percent.”

Funding from industries such as the almond industry certainly helps researchers provide real products for improved agricultural production. Along with the dollars has to come some patience for the process. On the other side of the coin, research and academia need the constant reminders and exposure to industry to recognize the significance of their work and need for practical, timely solutions to their challenges.

Bee supply — bloom 2008 and beyond

The value of honeybees and the beekeeping industry to the almond industry is enormous; however, the challenges inherent in bringing bees to almonds for pollination are numerous.

Between the stress due to transporting hives long distances, colonies weakened by varroa mite, poor nutrition of bees because of drought in various parts of the nation, and now colony collapse disorder (CCD), will the almond industry have the bees it needs to pollinate our increasing acreage?

This is the topic of a presentation to be held at this year's annual Almond Industry Conference in December. In this session, addressing both beekeepers and almond growers, attendees will hear about exciting new developments in crop pollination. Beekeepers will come away with a greater understanding of the business of almond production. Almond growers will learn more about bees and other possible pollinating insects. Lastly, you'll get a sneak preview of the status of pollination for the next bloom season. The session will be held Wednesday, Dec, 5, 9:40-10:40 a.m.

The Almond Board of California's Industry Conference will be held Dec. 5-6, at the Modesto Centre Plaza. Attendance is free; to sign up, go to www.mosaicevents.com/almondboard/, or phone the ABC at (209) 549-8262.