Without honey bees, there would be no almonds. Some would argue the reverse, as well. All agree that commercial beekeepers and almond growers are important partners.
Every February in California, almond blossoms open and the greatest facilitated pollination event in the world takes place. Over 2 million honey bee colonies are placed in almond orchards, some of which are moved to the region on semi-trucks from as far as New England and Florida. Beekeeping and Almonds are closely linked US industries, and as almond acreage continues to grow, the almond industry is increasingly driving changes in the beekeeping industry. It is estimated that over 80% of the commercial honey bee colonies in the USA are contracted for pollination in California almond orchards each year (estimated based on 2 honey bee colonies per bearing acres of almonds, and number of honey bees in operations with 5 or more colonies in the US. Sources: USDA-NASS 2018 California Almond Acreage Report, and USDA-NASS 2018 Honey Bee Colonies Report)
Left: Honey bees and almonds dominate the landscape in central California during the almond bloom. Almond acreage in California has increased 50% in the past 10 years. Right: Young non-bearing orchards offer ideal opportunities to plant cover crops that improve soil health and provide supplemental forage for bees.
California produces about 80% of the world’s almonds, and 2019 marks the highest acreage of almond orchards in California’s history at around 1.1 million bearing acres. This year also marked the highest demand for honey bee colonies to perform the important service of pollination which is essential to the production of a good almond crop. Global demand for almonds is only expected to increase in the coming years, adding incentive to growers and the almond industry to plant more orchards and produce more nuts. These increases in acres and pollination demand leave a shrinking margin between having enough healthy bees for almond pollination and having a serious shortage.
PAm board member John Miller, a commercial beekeeper and owner of Miller Honey Farms put it this way: “The supply of robust colonies to pollinate almonds is limited… I haven’t had a conversation with anyone in 2019 with extra bees for rent and I’ve had a lot of calls from almond growers and beekeepers seeking hives to rent.” And Joe Traynor, a beekeeper of over 50 years and highly respected bee broker told us that “If a grower wants strong bee colonies there has always been a shortage – there has been a shortage every year for the past 50 years. But this year there has probably been more of a shortage partly because of problems in North Dakota this last year. They had dry weather and bees didn’t do nearly as well there as they usually do. The whole [almond] industry gets a tremendous number of bees from N. Dakota and they weren’t in nearly as good a shape as they usually are, so we had to make up for this with bees from other states.
The Cold, Wet Weather
Along with the increased demand for pollination rentals, the weather put pressure on beekeepers and growers in 2019. Mid-February brought heavy rain and flooding to California, washing away colonies and creating difficult conditions in the fields. Beekeepers were faced with muddy (or worse) conditions, often resulting in stuck equipment and inaccessible hives. John Miller told us “We had a really hard time working in the bees because it just kept raining. Flooding issues north of Sacramento just destroyed hives that literally floated away. We can’t find them.” PAm Board member Pat Heitkam, a Queen Breeder and pollinator in Chico, California, lost over 80 hives to flooding.
Left: stuck equipment makes placing hives in muddy, flooded orchards difficult (photo courtesy of Mike Andree). Right: Beekeepers have made extra efforts to protect their colonies from rising flood waters, trying to keep bees alive to pollinate for the almond growers who also must manage their crops amidst the water and try to minimize the damage.
The cold weather and rain also delayed the bloom in some areas, leaving bee colonies without natural sources of food among the largely monoculture almond crop, and requiring more supplemental feeding than usual. George Hansen, a beekeeper from Oregon with about 7,000 colonies pollinating almonds this year, had to send work crews down to California just to feed his bees while they waited for the weather to clear and the almonds to bloom and provide a source of food for his bees – something he has never had to do before. These extra inputs were universally needed this year and increased beekeeper inputs of time and money. According to Pat Heitkam, during the almond bloom: “On a year like this, anyone who had marginal hives when they put them in – they are sub-par now. The colonies have actually shrunk since they put them in. That’s not normal, it’s because of the weather. This is a particularly bad year.”
When weather conditions like this persist, cool temperatures and rain affect bee flight hours in the orchards. This means that this year, even the strongest colonies had limited hours to fly, and the weather rendered smaller weaker colonies much less effective at pollinating. An already strained supply of honey bees along with inclement weather may have worked two-fold in some orchards and limited the success of pollination if a grower rented colonies that were not high-quality, or if bees were not able to increase in strength because of an inability to gather food.
Despite the challenges of this year, eventually the weather warmed up and many colonies were able to rebuild as flight hours improved late in the bloom. Preliminary crop reports from a USDA-NASS survey also show that production per acre is forecasted to increase 2.4% from last year – a testament to the dedication and hard work of growers and beekeepers, along with the amazing resiliency of the honey bees doing the work of pollination.
Almond Pollination Drives Some Key Honey Bee Management Changes
Beekeepers have been moving bees for pollination jobs for a long time. Apples, seed crops, squash and pumpkins, blueberries, and stone fruits are just a few of the crops that bees travel to pollinate each year. But migratory beekeeping patterns have changed, largely due to the expansion of the almond industry. Back in the 1980s and 90s beekeepers didn’t usually cross the Mississippi in a year. East coast pollinators travelled from Florida to the Northeast, and Texas beekeepers travelled to the Dakotas. Now, the same beekeepers transport their bees thousands of additional miles to pollinate almonds. Trucking bees requires drivers to keep moving from dawn until dusk. If they stop for more than a tank of gas, the bees might overheat, or escape and be lost. Transporting bees is stressful for colonies – overheating or cold temperatures can both be detrimental to a colony, and despite 65mph highway speeds, bees must still work to keep their hives at about 92 degrees in order to maintain queen quality and keep brood alive.
The lifespan of a honey bee queen has greatly diminished in recent years, and though scientists and beekeepers are still making inquiry into fully understanding why, queen failure can partially be attributed to things including exposure to sub-lethal doses of pesticides (including insecticides, herbicides and fungicides), poor nutrition and pathogens. Transportation stress also impacts the lifespan of a queen bee. Replacing lost queens is labor intensive and expensive for beekeepers, and it also makes for much less productive hives.
To understand how the almond industry influences beekeeping practices year-round, we need to look back to the summer before the bloom. Project Apis m. Board Member and beekeeper Dr. Gordon Wardell says: “Beekeepers start planning for the almond bloom back in the summer – in the previous June and July, and when the honey comes off in late July and August – that’s when beekeepers are starting to plan for February. It’s become a process now for 7 or 8 months leading up to almonds. During almond pollination we are seeing the results from the last year and the money and time beekeepers have put into medications, mite control, feeding, transportation, and monitoring.”
In most places, February is winter- a time of year honey bees are naturally small in numbers. Almond pollination requires strong colonies for good pollination, so beekeepers must take their bees out of the natural overwintering process and strengthen them for pollination, using artificial diets because there is no natural forage.
Honey production is another management practice that is changing with the almond pollination demands. Commercial Beekeeper Chris McClure explains how the two fold challenge of Varroa control and preparing colonies for pollination affects honey production “if you leave your supers on late in the year and try to get those last pounds of honey, you get behind on your mite control and are trading those 20 pounds of honey for pollination.” (Many commercially available Varroa treatments cannot be applied during honey production.) Often, beekeepers must choose between treating for Varroa in time to winter a strong colony, or a good honey crop. Some beekeepers are even considering abandoning honey production altogether, so they can focus on growing strong colonies primarily for almond pollination.
Honey Bee Health – A Bigger Picture
Reportedly high winter losses this year likely contributed to the lack of strong colonies for 2019 almonds. Commonly called the “4Ps” Parasites (Varroa mites), Pathogens, Poor Nutrition and Pesticides work in concert to put pressure on bees and their keepers.
Varroa – The #1 Threat to Honey Bee Health
George Hansen, a honey producer and pollinator summarized how Varroa impacted Almond pollination in 2019: “This past summer in multiple areas around the country, there was a huge spike in Varroa populations that in many cases beekeepers didn’t recognize in time, and in other cases they simply couldn’t keep up with it using the available treatments. So, many of the bees went into winter in a compromised condition, and didn’t do very well. The underlying issue is that we don’t really have good control over our mite situation – and I think something has shifted.”
That “shift” could be related to reports of many beekeepers that the available mite treatments are not working as well. Varroa are historically very good at developing resistance to miticides, and research is being initiated by PAm and others to study the efficacy of Amitraz, as well as to develop alternative solutions.
Varroa not only feed on the fat bodies of honey bees, but they are responsible for vectoring viruses like deformed wing virus, black queen cell virus and Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, that exacerbate Varroa’s damaging impact on a honey bee colony.
Supervisory Research Entomologist at the USDA Bee Lab in Baton Rouge, Dr. Bob Danka, PAm Executive Director Danielle Downey, and Biological Science Technician Garrett Dodds (also from the USDA Bee Lab in Baton Rouge), look at a Varroa resistant HilΩ queen bee. This breeding project selects for bees that control Varroa with a behavior of removing infected brood. This trial also assesses the stock for other qualities like overwintering success, gentleness, and honey production with the goal of a commercially adoptable Varroa resistant bee.
The Landscape and Honey Bee Nutrition
Lack of forage is another top concern of Beekeepers. Farming has become increasingly efficient, creating very successful and productive crops, the side-effect of which is drastically reducing the availability of natural habitat on the landscape in California and in other key places for honey bees like the Upper Midwest. All pollinators need adequate nutrition in order to thrive and even just to survive, but land use changes and expansion of croplands, even crops that rely on pollinators, are threatening pollinators’ ability to collect the resources they need for food.
Over time, beekeepers have adjusted their management practices to counteract widespread habitat loss and management changes by feeding their bees with sugar water and pollen patties. During the almond bloom, tanker trucks of sugar syrup are brought into almond growing regions and sold by the thousands of gallons to beekeepers to feed their hungry bees. This quickly becomes expensive for beekeepers and is not an ideal substitute for blooming plants. In the same way that humans need diversity in their diet, honey bees thrive with a diversity of blooming plants to forage on (click here for more about supplemental feeding and artificial diets for honey bees). Without supplemental planting, there is little else blooming on the landscape while beekeepers are staging hives for almond pollination, or while bees are waiting to be moved out of orchards after the almond bloom.
In the light of a global insect population decline, with honey production steadily decreasing per bee colony, CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) acreage dropping drastically, and an increasing demand for healthy bees for pollination of the food we eat, we need to be paying close attention to what is happening on the landscape.
PAm Board members George Hansen and Pat Heitkam stand in a Bee & Butterfly Habitat Fund planting in Jamestown, North Dakota. This initiative is working with landowners and growers in the Midwest to plant habitat for honey bees, monarch butterflies, and other pollinators. The Midwest is where many migratory bees spend their summers to build strength. Bee & Butterfly Habit Fund’s Next Gen Habitat seed mixes increase the duration, diversity, density, quality, and cost efficiency of pollinator habitat
What Can We Do?
Organizations like Project Apis m., the Almond Board of California, the Bee Informed Partnership, and many more, along with many almond growers and beekeepers, are working together to address the health of honey bees. These collaborations, focused on research and data, communication and forage, are a critical component to the long-term sustainability of beekeeping and almonds.
Along with these collaborative efforts, almond growers must play a key role in supporting the health of the bees they rely on. Rory Crowley, COO and VP for Research and Business Development at Nicolaus Nut Company, a family farm that grows almonds and walnuts, is committed to doing everything he can for the bees that pollinate his orchards: “when I started looking at how these bees work and started understanding what they are and the symbiotic relationship that growers (humans) have with this small little creature that is just amazing, I adopted a passion for making sure that given all the multi-faceted challenges that the honey bee faces, it was very clear to me that almond growers have a responsibility to make sure at every level possible that this little bee is as healthy as possible." (Read our full interview with Rory Crowley here).
Honey bees (and people!) need every grower of almonds, along with growers of all crops, to adopt such an attitude and commitment to better understanding the struggles of bees, and to implement practices that protect and support them. Beekeepers must also advocate for the health of their bees and help with the bigger picture where they can. Solutions include putting more habitat on the landscape, planting cover crops, continuously improving our understanding and practices of pollinator safe pesticide management, supporting research, and increasing communication between beekeepers and growers.
Honey bees are important in and of themselves, but they are also a “canary in the coalmine,” that can indicate bigger problems in the way we manage our resources. Other pollinators and important species, water and soil health are also being affected – and though they may not have the same voice and public attention as the honey bee, many of the solutions to honey bee health problems also positively impact these other species and environmental factors. We need to listen to the buzzzzz from the bees and continue making improvements that support them, and that support long-term sustainability in agriculture. For the love of almonds and for the love of bees!
Project Apis m. (PAm) was founded by beekeepers and almond growers nearly 13 years ago to address concerns about honey bee health. For more information about the research and habitat programs PAm funds and directs, visit ProjectApism.org
Click Here to read the Almond Board of California’s Best Management Practices for Honey Bees
Project Apis m.