The successful 2013 almond tree pollination in February was nothing short of a miracle. Then again, California’s top nut industry has a long history of February triumphs in the back pocket.

This spring, honey bees successfully pollinated California’s 800,000 acres of almonds; the Golden State’s top-valued nut with farm cash receipts near $3.87 billion in 2011.

Yet there initially was a shortage of strong honey bees which threatened the almond bloom. In the end, perfect weather and last ditch efforts between beekeepers nationwide and almond growers combined for a successful pollination event.

“The almond bloom balanced out beautifully,” says entomologist Eric Mussen, University of California, Davis statewide apiculturist, Davis, Calif.

Whew!

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Weeks before the largest pollination event on Earth, reports surfaced about a possible shortage of honey bees to adequately pollinate almond tree blooms. A pollination catastrophe could be a sword in the side of the California almond industry and beekeepers.

Yet in early June, almond trees are laden with a large crop which could mirror the 2011 record almond crop. With an abundance of nuts, some almond growers wonder if a honey bee shortage ever occurred.

There was a shortage of honey bees this spring, reports Mussen; along with bee broker Joe Traynor of Scientific Ag Company, Bakersfield, Calif.; and bee biologist Gordon Wardell, Paramount Farming, Lost Hills, Calif.

“We did not have adequate numbers of grower-desired strong honey bee colonies (with eight frames or more) to meet the need,” Mussen said.

Traynor pegged the honey bee shortage in the 10-20 percent range for bees working almond blossoms.

Wardell added, “Year in and year out commercial beekeepers were tapped out and came up short.”

Paramount Farming grows about 46,000 acres of almonds; mostly in Kern County. The company rents colonies from beekeepers in 26 states.

To make up for the bee supply deficiency, beekeepers brought in lesser-sized colonies at the last minute. The combination of great weather and a prolonged bloom period, plus strong colonies, and smaller colonies resulted in the successful almond pollination.

“Here we are with another good crop,” Mussen said. “If we had not acquired the smaller colonies we would have been short.”

The California almond bloom requires about 1.5 million hives for pollination. About a third is supplied by California beekeepers.

Technically, there are plenty of commercial bees nationally – 2.6 million colonies, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“We’re not getting all of the bees that could be on wheels coming to California,” Mussen said.

Some U.S. beekeepers prefer to keep bees locally to produce summer honey, and not expose the bees to the stress from trucking colonies to the West Coast and back.

Bee shortage reasons

The bee specialists agree that the shortage was the result of several factors which impacted the beekeeper’s ability to deliver the high quality honey bee colonies promised to almond growers.

While the finger is often pointed at neonicotinoid insecticides as a culprit for reduced bee numbers, the bee specialists point to last year’s drought in many areas of the nation (including California), a related decrease in foraging leading to malnutrition (starvation), varroa mites, and others.

Not high on their list is colony collapse disorder (CCD), the moniker for a disturbing trend where large numbers of honey bees fly from the hive and never return.

Mussen referenced a recent federal government survey which asked beekeepers for their views on recent honey bee losses. The top reasons given were starvation and varroa mites. CCD was far down the list.

“We really can’t blame CCD anymore,” Mussen said.

Cold temps, drought

Joe Traynor says extremely cold weather in California and other parts of the nation in January took a heavy toll on honey bees.

“Bees don’t like cold weather,” Traynor said. “Some beekeepers were blindsided and didn’t really know the real condition of the bees going into February (almond bloom). Many bees did not come in as well as beekeepers had hoped.”

Many bee colonies are trucked to California from northern-tier states, including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, the Dakotas, and Minnesota. Some North Dakota beekeepers bring bees to California in October and November, before heavy snows pile up on their home-state turf.

Once placed in California last fall, winter temperatures in January plunged and bee health slid downhill.

On drought, Mussen says California’s ongoing drought has reduced spring, summer, and fall wildflower populations. This has reduced available pollen for foraging bees. The end result is malnutrition.

Traynor says last year’s drought in the Midwest also reduced foraging opportunities and honey production. Some beekeepers were financially unable to feed supplements to increase bee health for almond pollination due to the smaller honey crop and reduced income.

Traynor also blames reduced bee health on increased Midwest corn and soybean plantings tied to higher commodity prices.

“Corn is a lousy bee plant,” Traynor said. “Corn pollen is a substandard nutrient product for bees.”

For years, Midwestern farmers enrolled in the USDA conservation reserve program (CRP) where farm land was taken out of production due to crop surpluses. Farm land was turned into prairie land with native clover and alfalfa which Traynor calls “great bee pasture.”

As CRP contracts expired and grain prices increased, Midwest farmers planted corn and soybeans on the land which reduced bee foraging opportunities.

Varroa mite

According to the University of Florida, the varroa mite is the world’s most devastating pest of western honey bees.

The varroa mite is a reddish-brown ectoparasite which feeds on immature and adult honey bees. It sucks the hemolymph (circulatory system fluid) from the bee’s body causing death.

During the feeding process, the mites vector viral and bacterial pathogens which severely challenge the bee’s immune system. A significant varroa mite infestation can lead to the death of a honey bee colony, usually in late autumn through early spring.

Gordon Wardell says it is important to monitor colonies for mites. If significant populations are found, appropriate mite control measures should be taken.

Mite-control products are registered for use in honey bee colonies. The beekeeper decides which product is best suited for particular management practices and the specific time of the year.

Still, one popular varroa mite control product was in the process of reformulation and was unavailable for awhile.

“Varroa mites definitely played a role in the heavy bee mortality seen this last winter,” Wardell said. “In some cases, mites were out of control.”

The strongest bees Paramount rented this past spring were from southern states; the weakest were from the Midwest, Wardell says.  He concurs that the Midwest drought robbed bees of rich nectar and the pollen needed to prepare their bodies for winter.

“Bees are like bears; they need to build up fat in their bodies for the long winter,” Wardell said.

“This year we had Midwestern bees in California going into winter and the bees started to crash in December.”

“Poorly-fed bees do not live as long as well-fed bees.”

Hopefully, an easing of the Midwest drought this year will help beekeepers build stronger honey bee colonies for next year’s almond bloom.

cblake@farmpress.com

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