The buzz of a strong honey bee colony can put a jingle in more than the beekeeper’s pocket, according to one bee biologist.

As discussions evolve around protecting honey bees used to pollinate a host of crops – the largest and most prominent of which is California’s multi-billion almond crop – growers and their pest control advisors are encouraged to apply a set of best management practices to promote honey bee health.

Gordon Wardell, a bee biologist with California’s Paramount Farms, says he can show how promoting strong bee colonies through relatively simple means can put money in a grower’s pocket.

Wardell told a gathering of pest control advisors at the annual California Association of Pest Control Advisors’ (CAPCA) meeting in Reno, Nev., that eliminating bloom time sprays from Paramount’s almond orchards has improved Paramount’s bottom line while helping bees at the same time.

“We’ve found that bloom time sprays reduce our yield,” Wardell told the PCA’s gathered for the CAPCA meeting in Reno. “We have much more creative ways of reducing our yields without doing bloom time sprays.”

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Avoiding all almond spraying operations during the critical bloom period is just one of a number of best management practices Wardell said Paramount Farms employs to promote healthier bee colonies. Paramount Farms is the world’s largest grower and processor of almonds and pistachios with 46,000 acres of almonds in Central California.

Paramount brings in about 90,000 colonies of bees each year for its almond pollination.

Without pointing fingers at a particular cause, Wardell told the CAPCA gathering that there are a number of things that can impact colony health. Some are well within the control of growers to positively change.

“The bee colony is actually a very delicate organism,” Wardell said.

Poor bee health and reduced colony strength can also have a negative impact on pollination during periods of marginal weather during bloom.

Wardell can point to years where the weather during almond bloom was not favorable to adequate bee flight times because of cold temperatures, wind and rain. It’s during these periods where stronger colonies can make the difference between good pollination and trees that are unable to set nuts because they were not pollinated.

The need for bees

Colony Collapse Disorder continues to concern those involved in the bee industry, and for good reason. According to Wardell, California needs about 1.6 million colonies of bees during the bloom period. The United States has about 2.4 million colonies in total. It is not a stretch to say these numbers are dangerously close.

“The problem here is with almond acreage increasing in California we will need even more bees in the future,” he said. “If we have an average die-off, which normally is about 30 percent every year, we’re at the tipping point right now.”

Further exacerbating the problem is the price of pollination and the cost of shipping bees into California, according to Wardell. He said some bee keepers are reluctant to ship bees into California for the almond bloom because they feel they can get better prices for their bees elsewhere.

On the bright side, Wardell says that many of the beekeepers he deals with like working with Paramount Farms because of its efforts to protect bees.

“Many of our bee keepers are asking if they can return to Paramount because their bees return healthier than in other orchards where they encounter a lot of sprays,” he continued.

Wardell is not pushing for an absence of sprays in almond orchards. He is simply pushing for a smarter approach that takes bees into account, not only for their necessity in pollinating almonds and a host of other crops, but because of their beneficial use in nature.

Another practice he recommends is avoiding tank mixes because too little is known of the synergistic effect the various chemical chemistries have on bee health

Adding to the various unknowns is the Varroa mite, which is lethal to honey bees.

He cautions that while pesticide labels can indicate relative safety when used around honey bees, keeping sprays off the hives is critical because of a certain bee behavior called “wash boarding.”

This is where bees physically clean the surface of the hive, sterilizing the surface of the hive with an anti-bacterial compound they excrete from their mouths.

“If we happen to have a spray that hits the colony, these bees are trying to clean it off,” he said.

Understanding what bees do

Wardell also explained that each bee plays an important role in the colony, and that a reduction in bee numbers has far-reaching ramifications in the health and lifespan of the colony. Understanding this can help growers and PCA’s understand the importance of strong, vibrant bee colonies.

There are three distinct populations of bees, Wardell said: Brood bees, hive bees and field foragers. Each has its important role in colony health.

Brood bees are the babies. These include the eggs, larvae and pupae. Hive bees emerge after eggs hatch. It takes about 21 days for a bee to become an adult, he said. Hive bees remain inside the colony for about four weeks, performing a variety of duties, including feeding the brood, cleaning the hive, building wax, honey production and guarding the colony.

“There is even a group of bees we call the ‘undertaker bees’,” he said. “They look for dead and dying bees and remove them from the hive to keep the hive hygienic.”

Foraging bees will seek nectar, pollen and water for the hive. Water becomes necessary not only in feeding the young bees, as it is used to dilute the food sources fed to young bees, it is also used to cool the hive.

One of Wardell’s recommended practices is the placement of buckets of fresh water near bee colonies.

“It may be helpful for the grower to put out fresh water for the bees,” he said. “If there is a spray needed during the bloom, dump the buckets of water and replace them with clean water for the bees.”

Another helpful practice is to instruct equipment operators to make wide turns around the orchard rows to avoid knocking over bee colonies, and turn off the sprayer well before coming near the hives. Wardell says this because he has seen both practices happen.

“Avoid spraying directly on the colonies as well,” he said. “A chemical may be safe around the bees but it may not be safe on the bees.”

Wardell has seen this happen and has pictures of dead colonies of bees resulting from direct chemical contact with hives.

“I really want to try to make almonds the safest crop we can move bees to,” Wardell said. “If we can do this it will help hold down the price of pollination and make more beekeepers come to pollination, and will make the whole industry a better place.”

Research project

In addition to promoting honey bee health, Wardell is working on a research project that could benefit his employer and the bee industry.

He is currently working with blue orchard bees (BOB), a wild and solitary bee that shows promise in helping pollinate crops.

“Paramount wanted to see if there is another bee that can supplement honey bee pollination, or act as an ‘insurance policy’ if we have some bee colonies that are a little short,” Wardell said.

Wardell is currently studying one of about 50 species of solitary bees common to California. What is positive about these particular bees is they seem to work well in almonds. Another positive: they don’t sting.

He currently has BOB’s in cold storage at his Paramount facility west of Lost Hills, Calif., where he is busy constructing 20 acres of enclosed habitat for the Blue Orchard Bee. The habitat will include several kinds of flowers and a netting enclosure to keep the Blue Orchard bees in and other bees and animals out.

Wardell is in his fourth year of research on the project.

“What we’ve learned so far is that we can put them into the orchard and they work well with honey bees,” Wardell said. “They are very good pollinators.”

The main part holding Paramount back from using the BOB to supplement honey bee pollination is their numbers. Once they can breed and grow a viable population of the solitary bees then Wardell says they may be able to use them to supplement almond pollination.

Researchers from the University of California, USDA and Utah State University at Logan are working with Wardell on the BOB project.

Key to BOB success, as will be for their European honey bee cousins, will be to encourage growers and others to promote wildflower and other vegetative growth to allow for greater bee foraging throughout the year.

“Where are they going to go when the almonds aren’t in bloom,” Wardell asks. “We have to find other places for them to forage.”

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