Almond growers have a lot of inputs to consider to produce their crop. They must balance the cost of labor, pest management, water, and bees for pollination. Those costs are not fixed year-after-year, especially renting the bees. The fact is the cost of colony rentals for pollination has steadily increased, and remained, at a premium. And almond acreage is projected to outpace the number of available colonies sometime in the next decade. Growers take these factors very seriously and it is not surprising that self-pollinating almond varieties have been a hot topic lately.
“Bearing acres of almonds (trees old enough to produce fruit) are typically stocked with 2 colonies per acre of trees. If the trends of the last five years continue (a ~20% increase in acreage and a ~1% increase in honey bee colonies), pollination demand in almonds could exceed the supply of honey bees in the next five years.” Chart and caption are excerpted from The Bee Health Collective.
Data shows that interest in self-pollinating varieties of almonds has translated into acres planted. ‘Independence’ almonds, in particular, are a proprietary varietal that now represents a noticeable chunk of new orchards over the last decade. Growers reported planting 3,155 acres of Independence almonds in 2019, which is about 15% of the total of new acres planted across all varieties.
Adapted from the Tuono variety Spain, self-pollinating trees have been modified for use in the U.S. where pollinator reliant almonds are most common. Pollinator reliant almonds are “self-incompatible” meaning that at least two varieties must be present to provide pollen for each other. Typically, the honey bee is brought in to transfer pollen from one row of trees to another, pollinating the trees and increasing nut set.
Even though Independence almonds do not require honey bees, research published in the journal Nature earlier this year demonstrated that honey bees are beneficial in those orchards, increasing fruit sets by 60% and kernel yield by 20%. This is an interesting finding as growers and beekeepers continue to work together towards a successful crop year after year.
All stakeholders are concerned that honey bee health challenges, and more recently declines in native pollinators, will impact the availability of insects to pollinate almonds in the future. To continually meet this demand beekeepers have made adjustments to their yearly routines, adapting new technology to improve colony survival over the winter, and provide the high-quality colonies most useful for pollination in Almonds in February. One example of this is the increasing practice of indoor storage during the winter.
Growers are stepping up to support pollinators as well. By planting forage in the form of cover crops, habitat plots, or hedgerows which provide food for bees, has been shown to increase colony size. A larger, healthier, colony will be able to supply more foragers to pollinate the trees more efficiently (foragers raised in a pollen abundant setting communicate better). Forage plantings can also improve soil quality and volume, prevent erosion, and break up compacted soil.
The Seeds for Bees® program mustard mix is growing between rows of almond trees. The mustard mix is planted in the fall and begins to bloom in plenty of time to feed the honey bees that are beginning to arrive in the area for the almond bloom. In addition to mustard varieties, this mix also contains canola (a honey bee favorite) and daikon radish which grows down and breaks tough soils.
The takeaway is this: healthy and abundant pollinators, native or managed, can increase production for all types of almonds. Beekeepers and growers continue to work together to plan for the coming years. Increasing forage is an especially effective tool that can be put into place now. PAm has made forage an integral part of our organization, through acres planted and research, to support beekeepers and growers at the crucial interface of almond pollination.