With almond bloom upon us it’s important to remember how regular orchard management tasks can affect honey bees. The following are some Best Management Practices that should be considered for bees pollinating almonds. The honey bee is a small creature, and attention to the small details regarding their health and safety have a significant impact on their ability to pollinate effectively.
Growers should communicate with all parties that are involved with pollination. Proper communication will certainly include the beekeeper who is providing the colonies but might also include a bee broker, pest control adviser (PCA) and certified pesticide applicator (CPA). California county agricultural commissioners also play a vital role in the communication chain between growers and beekeeper. All colonies are required to be registered with each county agricultural commissioner upon arrival in that county.
The best way to register colonies is by using the Bee Where program. This web based program offers beekeepers a dynamic, real-time geographic information system (GIS) where they can mark colonies with a pin drop in the orchard via a mobile app. Bee Where is useful to growers because their notice of intent (NOI) for material applications allows each county agricultural commissioner to notify each beekeeper in the area which allows them the opportunity to move their colonies.
Proper communication helps both grower and beekeeper achieve successful pollination while reducing risk to honey bee colonies and the almonds they pollinate. Starting before bloom, growers and beekeepers should agree upon average frame count per colony, date and location of placement and removal, inspection protocol, and payment terms. A contract is a good way to get the discussion going. A pollination contract template can be found at the Project Apis m. website.
Many of the pesticides commonly used to protect crops can also harm or kill honey bees. Caution should be taken when applying crop protection products when bees are present. Always read labels and follow directions. Do not use pesticides with cautions on the label that read “highly toxic to bees,” “toxic to bees,” “residual times” or “extended residual toxicity.” Avoid applying any insecticide during bloom. If a fungicide application is necessary, spray in the evening or at night when bees and pollen are not present. Adjuvants should not be used with fungicides unless stated on the label. 1
Bees require access to water in order to regulate hive temperatures in the heat. Standing water on orchard floors may be contaminated with pesticides which are harmful to bees. Bees accessing other water sources like neighboring pools/fountains may create a nuisance. Providing water is an important and easy step to safely and effectively manage bees pollinating almonds and avoid complaints from neighbors. Place water near hives as soon as they arrive and use new containers or ones that have been thoroughly cleaned out. A proper “landing” area is essential for successful water collection, so bees don’t drown. This can be achieved with floating cork, marbles, leaves, grass, or straw. For buckets or drums, most commercial beekeepers use burlap. Burlap, fastened by clothespins, is draped over the sides allowing water to wick up the sides. Change out water if it has been contaminated with pesticides or looks unclean. The recommended rate of water is about a half-gallon for each hive for the duration of pollination, which is roughly equal to: One 55 gallon drum for every 100 hives or, one 5 gallon bucket for every 10 hives.
Bee Nutrition / Forage
Many producers use cover crops to help them achieve their goals of improving soil quality, pollinator health and economic viability. Growers that plant alternative sources of nutrition like blooming cover crops before and during the bloom of their cash crop do so to create a positive feedback loop within the hive. This positive feedback loop helps ensure healthy and more bees for pollination. As pollen is brought back to the hive, the queen lays eggs. In three days, the eggs hatch into larvae. The immature larvae that beekeepers call ‘brood’ secretes a pheromone that drives adult foragers to go find more protein, in the form of pollen. The smell of the brood pheromone is the hive’s way of communicating the urgency in which bees need to collect resources to support the next generation of bees. Preliminary results from an Almond Board of California funded study conducted by Dr. Elina Niño measures the impact Seeds for Bees cover crops in or near almond orchards has on colonies.2 She found that hives in orchards with access to the PAm Mustard Mix were on average three frames more populous than hives without access to supplemental forage. Planting bee forage cover crops is a great way to get more brood pheromone in the hives you rent for pollination, giving them a boost before the bloom and increasing foraging behavior (pollination).
Just as almond growers are finding it increasingly difficult to get reliably strong colonies, beekeepers are facing greater challenges to keep their hives alive. Varroa mites and loss of habitat/poor nutrition are two of the biggest health threats honey bees face in modern beekeeping. To help mitigate other stressors to their bees, beekeepers often look for orchards with supplemental sources of forage for their bees. Planting cover crops that will bloom before and after almonds can help growers attract high-quality beekeepers with healthy hives. Some beekeepers even give growers a discounted rental rate for hives if there is access to supplemental sources of food.