Recently, there has been heightened interest in self-compatible almond varieties by the California almond industry, beekeepers and the media. This is in response to commercial introduction of a self-compatible variety, and information released on UC Davis and USDA-ARS breeding programs, which are developing self-compatible varieties.

The key question is: Will self-compatible varieties eliminate the need for bee pollination, particularly honey bee pollination services? The answer is that over time, the introduction of successful self-compatible varieties will reduce, but not eliminate, reliance on bees.

Why we will still need bees

Because of the size and nature of almond pollen and the arrangement of almond flower parts, almond pollen does not move consistently from the anthers, where it is produced, to the stigma, where the steps to fertilization are initiated.  In essence, almond blossoms need a transfer agent, such as bees. With self-compatible varieties there will be reduced reliance on bees, as successful pollen transfer can occur within the same flower — in addition to transfer between trees of different varieties and between bees within the hive, as is the case now. This is in contrast to the current orchard plantings where pollen must be either transferred between trees of different varieties or must be intermixed in the hive.

Additionally, history tells us that few new varieties are successful. Success will be measured in other ways in addition to self-compatibility. There are a number of horticultural characteristics (e.g., yield over the long term, bloom overlap, tree structure, pest and disease resistances) and market characteristics (e.g., kernel quality, market type, blanchability, flavor, doubling, shell properties) that determine success. Furthermore, it takes several years of testing at different locations and field experience to determine the value of a new variety.

A third issue is that it will take a number of years for a successful self-compatible variety, or varieties, to transition into industry production, given the typical 20–25 year lifespan of almond orchards.

ABC commitment to bee research

Given the above, it is no surprise the Almond Board has made and will continue to make a long-term commitment to honey bee health and nutrition research. The ABC has funded a sustained pollination and honey bee research program since 1976, and in particular, has been addressing honey bee health, nutrition, pest and disease management, and the effects of pesticides since 1995 — long before the advent of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Funding since 1995 has reached $1.2 million.

The activities and accomplishments of these programs include:

Establishment of late summer-fall feeding, particularly with protein, as important for strong hives at almond bloom time.

Assistance in the development of bee diets.

Development of novel approaches for Varroa mite control.

Studying factors contributing to CCD.

Supporting a breeding program for improved honey bee resistance to pests and pathogens; this information is now being transfered to queen breeders.

Research partnerships

ABC research complements other efforts, including research funded by USDA and private groups, such as Project Apis m (http://www.projectapism.org/). The Almond Board of California is a collaborator with Project Apis m in informing beekeepers and almond growers alike about pollination best management practices (BMPs). This effort is being leveraged by CDFA-Farm Bill Block Grant Funds. 

Almond Industry Conference

This year’s Almond Industry Conference on Dec. 8 and 9 in Modesto will include discussions on bee health and management challenges, keys to strong colonies for almond pollination, and practices almond growers can employ to assist the beekeeper in providing strong honey bee colonies. In addition, there will be a “Pollination Pavilion” that will feature the latest results of ABC-funded bee health research and stock improvement programs, information on pollination BMPs, and information on the blue orchard bee as a supplemental pollinator to honey bees. At the Pavilion there will be an opportunity for almond growers, beekeepers and brokers to exchange hive rental information. To learn more about the conference, including the program schedule and registration information, go to AlmondBoard.com/farmpress13.