California almond growers produce 99 percent of the U.S. commercial almond crop.

The annual California springtime pollination ritual in almond orchards is the world’s largest pollination event.

 

Dan Cummings is the E.F. Hutton of today for the intertwined California almond and beekeeping industries.

In the 1970s, the financial brokerage firm E. F. Hutton sponsored popular television commercials touting the phrase “When E.F. Hutton speaks, people listen.” The same is true for Cummings, one of the most respected and knowledgeable advocates in the California almond and honey bee industries on the essential issue of almond pollination.

“Pollination is truly a dynamic process,” says Cummings, owner and chief executive officer of Cummings Violich, Inc., in Chico, Calif. The company manages about 9,000 acres of almonds and walnuts.

Cummings is also chief financial officer of Olivarez Honey Bees in Orland, Calif., with operations in Montana and Hawaii.

Cummings and other almond-bee experts addressed pollination issues during a standing-room-only seminar at the two-day 2011 Almond Industry Conference in Modesto, Calif., in December.

Due to increased conference attendance in recent years and space restrictions in Modesto, the almond industry will make a bee line to Sacramento, Calif., in 2012 for a three-day Almond Industry Conference Dec. 11-13 at the Sacramento Convention Center.

Cummings understands that no bees equal no California almond crop. Almond trees are 100 percent reliant on bee pollination to produce a crop. Beekeepers need almond growers to help cover the costs associated with healthy, quality hives.

California almond growers produce 99 percent of the U.S. commercial almond crop.

“Better understanding bee pollination perhaps holds the greatest promise for the future of the California almond industry,” Cummings told the crowd.

California’s almond industry is comprised of about 750,000 bearing acres plus about 80,000 non-bearing acres. The annual California springtime pollination ritual in almond orchards is the world’s largest pollination event.

Last year, California almond growers produced a record 1.95 billion kernel pound crop. The industry is poised to produce a record 2-billion-pound crop this year.

On average, two hives are required per acre for almond flower pollination. About 1.5 million managed honey bee hives of the 2.5 million managed hives nationwide pollinate almond flowers. More honey bees will be required in the future as California almond acreage expands. Future plantings are expected to slow slightly in the short term.

An adequate and affordable honey bee supply is critical to the long-term prosperity of almond growers and beekeepers.

Worries continue over significant bee losses in the last five years linked to a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD). The disorder is about the loss of billions of bees over time which flew from hives and never returned.

“We have not figured out what causes CCD,” Cummings said. “There is a very high correlation with the presence of the nosema parasite and the varroa mite.”

Estimates peg annual bee losses in the 30 percent range in recent years.

“Not only has CCD decreased the number of hives and bees per hive available for pollination but it has dramatically increased the costs to keep hives alive and for re-queening,” Cummings explained.

Beehive rental rates have edged higher partly tied to CCD. According to a California State Beekeepers Association Survey, average beehive rental rates for almond pollination more than doubled from about $58 per hive in 2004 to $151 per hive in 2010. The association expects 2012 hive rental rates in the $155 per hive range.

Honey bee demand

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.

Pesticide impact

Another project is exploring the sensitive issue on the possible impact of pesticides in almond production on honey bees.

“Fungicides have an impact on honey bees in a sub-lethal manner but not an acute toxicity where dead bees are found all over the place,” Heintz said. “Beekeepers want to get to the bottom line and understand the impact of fungicide on the life stages of honey bees.”

Up to 85 percent of the bees which pollinate California crops spend summers in the Northern Great Plains where beekeepers work to enhance bee numbers and health. About 500,000 hives are maintained in North Dakota.

“This region provides essential nutrients for winter bees,” research biologist Ned Euliss told the almond crowd.

Euliss is with the U.S. Geological Survey at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown, N.D.

Euliss emphasized ongoing efforts to advance winter bee numbers and overall bee health. Winter bees live about six months compared to summer bees with a 45-day life span. Landscape planning in the Great Plains helps develop plant pollen essential to enhanced bee life.

“Pollen is the only source of protein for bees,” Euliss said. “Every plant species has different quality pollen. Bees with a balanced diet are healthier which allows them to better cope when hives are moved by truck across the nation for crop pollination.”

Euliss and others are weighing how changing crop cycles in the Northern Great Plains could impact honey bee nutrition. Farmers in the region are considering different cropping options in part due to higher commodity prices. Farmers are also shifting toward more grain production for conversion to ethanol to help the U.S. move closer to energy independence.

In addition, Euliss says many USDA conservation reserve program contracts will end soon which will change the overall landscape. His focus is how these changes could impact bee health.

Euliss’ goal is to share the findings with policy makers to help them make informed decisions on landscape issues. 

cblake@farmpress.com