Pollination is one of the biggest challenges facing California almond growers. The Almond Board of California continues to support research on honey bee health and self-compatible varieties to help growers contend with this challenge.

Even with the development of commercially viable self-fertile almond varieties, the need for honey bees to pollinate the state’s 750,000 acres of bearing almonds means that almond growers and beekeepers will have an ongoing, symbiotic relationship for a long time into the future.

Each year, some 1.5 million honey bee colonies are staged throughout California in preparation for pollinating the state’s almond orchards. Over the years, shifting crop patterns, economics, and other factors have challenged beekeepers’ ability to provide a healthy year-round foraging diet for these managed honey bees.

Disappearing food sources

At one time, more-diverse crop patterns as well as more-plentiful natural wildflowers and weeds provided year-round forage opportunities for beekeepers. This diverse forage promoted a healthy, polyfloral diet for honey bees that led to strong hives and improved pollination. Today, however, those crop patterns are shifting while at the same time, more acreage of bearing almonds has created a growing demand for healthy hives to pollinate the annual almond crop.

In the summer months, beekeepers typically move their colonies to open spaces out of state. One summer forage source has been prairie land in the upper Midwest. However, rising prices for grain crops are causing Midwest growers to put fallow land once in the Conservation Reserve Program back into summer grain production. Another challenge to summer forage sources is the shift in California citrus acreage.  As California citrus growers transition their orange orchards to seedless citrus such as mandarins, they are working to prevent bees from pollinating to maintain seedless citrus crops, limiting beekeepers’ access to citrus as a summer pollen source. In addition, the move to Roundup Ready alfalfa and restrictions on alfalfa bloom in that GMO crop, are limiting access to alfalfa fields as a summer forage pollination source.

Commercial bee colonies begin arriving in California almond production regions in October and are moved into orchards to begin pollination in February.

There is a shrinking supply of good food sources for these colonies overwintering in California. Loss of nectar sources and urbanization have combined with other factors to seriously affect available food sources for pollinators in the winter.

Providing a crop or native plants that bloom before and after almonds would help improve honey bee health and could even reduce the cost of pollination services.