Honey bee hive rentals represent 13 percent to 15 percent of the input costs in almond production, Cummings says.

Some believe that beekeepers increased rental costs to solely boost income. Cummings referenced a pollination fee report from the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics which examined the impact of CCD on pollination fees.

“The presumption for some almond growers is the unprecedented honey bee demand for almonds is why beekeepers are raising their prices and generating unprecedented profits. That is not the case,” Cummings said. “CCD is a major component of higher hive fees.”

With CCD and increasing hive rates, almond growers are looking for other ways to pollinate almonds. One option is the native blue orchard bee (BOB), Osmia lignaria.

“The blue orchard bee is a native bee and a good almond pollinator — in some cases better than honey bees,” Cummings said. “The blue orchard bee has a higher efficacy rate particularly during cold weather flights and the number of visits per flower.”

If only BOBs were used to pollinate almonds, some suggest a rate of about 1,000 females per acre. For commercial use, female BOBs can cost about 35 cents per bee.

Cummings contends a mix of honey bees and BOBs at appropriate stocking levels could improve almond pollination.

Downsides to BOBs include the insect’s high sensitivity to fungicide plus propagation difficulties. The largest number of BOBs is available in Utah and Idaho with some availability in California. Cummings says not enough BOBs exist today to solely pollinate almonds.

Self fertile almond varieties are a relatively new option in almond pollination, but at this point cannot totally replace bees. Self fertile varieties can help maintain or increase yields especially when cool, wet spring weather keeps bees in the hive and out of the orchard.

About 5,000 acres to 7,000 acres of self fertile almonds have been planted in California over the last three to four years.

Cummings says self fertile almonds can never totally replace bees since a vector is required to move pollen from the flower’s anther to the stigma. Some suggest using one to one-and-a-half honey bee hives per acre in self fertile almond orchards.

All of these areas and others require a plethora of pollination research. Christi Heintz spoke on ongoing almond-bee research projects conducted through the Almond Board of California (ABC).

Heintz is the ABC’s bee task force liaison and serves as executive director of Chico-based Project Apis m. The organization provides direct research and funding to improve the health and vitality of honey bee colonies while improving crop production.

Since 1976, the ABC has invested $1.8 million in pollination research. Funding last year totaled $103,000.

Current ABC bee research projects include honey bee stock improvement headed by bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey who holds a joint appointment with the University of California, Davis and Washington State University. Cobey believes improved genetic diversity can strengthen the U.S. honey bee population.  

Zachary Huang of the University of Michigan is conducting RNA research to disrupt the reproductive cycle of varroa.