A good relationship between beekeepers and farmers is the linchpin to protect bee health and promote robust pollination. This historic collaboration finds multiple benefits in communication and cover crops. John and Jason Miller of Miller Honey Bees and Nick Edsall of Bullseye Farms share their advice.
We’d like to share a story. A story both old and new. It’s a story of working together, of collaboration, of partnership and the magic that happens when a small industrious insect, a farmer and a beekeeper come together, with a little help from Mother Nature, science and industry wisdom.
It is a story retold with different names and places across California, the US and the globe. Our story takes place in an orchard in the Sacramento Valley between the coastal range and the Sierra foothills near Woodland.
John and Jason Miller’s hives are stacked in wooden boxes at the row’s end, positioned to take advantage of the warmth that filters through the tree canopy. It’s late January. The bees have just made the road trip from indoor wintered conditions in Idaho to spring’s marathon of almond pollination. To a honey bee, it’s something like the sound of your alarm clock at 5 am after a late night.
Nick Edsall has managed the orchards for Bullseye Farms for the past seven years. Bullseye, too, is a father and son partnership. They grow bee pollinated crops – almonds, cucumbers, and sunflowers – in addition to tomatoes, walnuts, and pistachios. Bees and beekeepers are necessary collaborators to a successful harvest at Bullseye.
John and Jason, of Miller Honey Bees, are one. Thoughtfully positioned in the orchards Nick manages, the Miller’s colonies are poised to provide robust pollination needed to make a healthy almond crop come late summer.
But, for many bees placed throughout California’s Central Valley, something is missing.
Signs of spring abound. Yet the almonds have yet to bloom. For acres and acres, and glorious acres, there is abundant food in their future and ours. But just not yet. Spring’s bounty of pollen and nectar is around the corner.
Farming practices focused on efficiency have generated an abundance of food, consumer choice and a booming ag economy. With it has come the introduction of chemical remedies and the loss of pastureland and hedgerows. What some might call weeds, are food for bees. Diversity and density of forage is critical for pollinator health. This is especially true for bees like the Millers' transported to the almond event to help nurture one of our most healthy and popular crops.
For the Miller’s bees, thankfully, things are different.
Win-Win for Farms and Bees
Early last fall, Nick planted a mix of cover crop seed between rows in the walnut orchard adjacent to the almonds. Now in his 3rd year of planting cover crop, he considers it an important part of his orchard management practice.
“The first year we started with cereal grains to improve soils, build organic matter to prevent cracking and build fertility. Hold in nutrients instead of having them leaching through,” Nick recollects. Then a friend recommended that Nick look into PAm’s Seeds for Bees forage program. Today, Bullseye devotes roughly 2,000 acres to cover crop, including PAm’s specially designed seed mixes. “We do a rotation along with PAm Mustard Mix, vetch and clover. It’s helped with soil improvement. It benefits bees and we’re seeing benefits to biodiversity, all sorts of beneficial insects,” Nick says.
Adding cover crop to farm practices does come with challenges. “You have to be real careful,” Nick advises. “Managing two different crops within the same field makes it challenging. Sometimes the cultural practices used for the management of the cover crop can interfere with the tree management, and vice versa. With a little experimentation and experience though, the cover crop can be managed in a way that benefits the orchards and bees, with minimal problems to the grower,” he adds. “We’re finding the benefits outweigh the negatives.”
“It’s just smart farming,” exclaims John, the enthusiastic advocate of bee forage, a PAm board member and sixth generation beekeeper. Research supports beekeeper’s observations that forage increases brood production and stimulates pollen collection.
“If a beekeeper can place his bees into a stimulating environment on January 25, and fresh pollen activates queen activity, 21 days later baby bees emerge," John explains. “Why does that matter? Because the very first almond blossoms appear around February 15. Hives coming out of dormancy are populated by foragers. The sooner young bees begin emerging and tend to their instinctive caste tasks the sooner the battalion of fliers can seek groceries on the wing.”
Advice from the field
With the complexities of farming and beekeeping (not to mention the twists and turns of Mother Nature), what do these seasoned collaborators think contributes to a successful relationship?
“I’ll use the word transparency,” John suggests, not referring here to the contract or legalese. “It’s the over the tailgate conversation, quality time talking about our shared goal. The more I know about your orchard operation, your crops, the root stock, the graft on top, your ideas about irrigation and how the system is set up, the better,” John continues. “All of these pieces of info impact recommendations for how hives are placed on site. If all the tactical stuff is shared across the tailgate, the better job I can do with my bees.” John and his son Jason work together with Nick. Jason is Nick’s go-to guy at Miller Honey to cultivate and service the relationship. John facilitates the placement and management of hives while on site with Nick prior to bloom.
Without much of a pause, Nick echoes a similar theme: communicate expectations before, during and between pollination. “Talk about how the season will go,” says Nick. “Farmers and beekeepers have relied on a handshake in the past. A contract is an easy way to have a baseline of expectations for both parties.” Nick also suggests reaching out in the off season to help beekeepers find good places for their hives helps strengthens relationships.
“Bees are opportunists,” John adds. “Bees will fly a long way to forage, stray off orchard, off site. They get in trouble. Always will. Always do. Beekeepers know they are not exclusive in the neighborhood. There are guys who grow alfalfa in the next field over. They have to treat for pests.” Treatment application can overlap when bees are still in the orchard. This common problem can be mitigated by tailgate conversations and clearly communicated expectations. “Good communication can point out a problem before it’s a problem,” says Nick.
The Miller’s worker bees funnel out of their multi-colored boxes. This year, mustard blooms have matured in time by the grace of seasonal rains. Early bloom is a win-win for Nick’s almonds and Jason and John’s bees. Nutritious and close food sources will trigger hives to begin their spring build up sooner than almonds alone. “Anything you can do to strengthen colonies gives growers a better chance for stronger hives in pollination,” Nick suggests, “and it also benefits the beekeeper.”
The story of bees and crops, and beekeepers and growers, is an old tale. There’s been a plot change with new practices used on today’s farms and orchards – from positive and productive, to challenging and detrimental. There is continued urgency to protect honey bee health and vitality while enhancing crop production. Collaboration to make this happen has never been more important.
Support farmers and beekeepers to plant 10,000 acres of cover crop this season through the Seeds for Bees Program. Help protect bee health and support farm sustainability. Bee Impactful!
Read more about the Seeds for Bees Forage Program here. New this year, seed mixes will be available for sale online. More information will be available after July 1st. Contact Billy Synk, Seeds for Bees Program Manager, for more information.
Resources for growers here and here.
Resources for beekeepers here.
More about PAm’s honey bee forage and nutrition research here.
Almond Board of California resources: http://www.almonds.com/pollination
Many thanks to Nick Edsall, Bullseye Farms, and John and Jason Miller, Miller Honey Farms.
Written By: Sheila Jackson
Sheila is a nonprofit development specialist and visual designer based in Park City, Utah. Her life-long wonder of nature and irrepressible desire to inform, inspire, and connect people with missions that matter, drive her work. Sheila supports engagement efforts for Project Apis m. through her consultancy, Jackson Creative.