Productive and profitable farming is both a short-term and long-term effort. Incorporating cover crops into your orchard management plan is a useful tool for growers to achieve their goals. This article will revisit the benefits of cover crops. Next month I will present some tips for increasing its success.
Cover crops not only contribute to healthy honey bee colonies and ensure robust pollination services for this years’ nut set but also help build healthy soil that contributes to orchard and crop vitality for the years to come.
The decision to manage a cover crop on your orchard floor can be a daunting task. Adding this tool to your toolbox does come with its own challenges. There is a required learning curve when changing your management style to accommodate any new technique.
Building Soil Health
Choosing the right plants can have a significant impact on soil issues like compaction, erosion, weed control. Cover crops penetrate hard ground with their roots and hold the soil together by creating stronger aggregates, which also increases water infiltration and prevents erosion. Nitrogen-fixing legumes like clover and vetch can add about 80 lbs. of nitrogen per acre to the soil.
Recently growers have been facing issues with compaction. As orchards with a high clay content lose their organic matter, the pore size in between small bits of aggregated soil decrease. This decreases the soil's porosity which slows the orchards ability to soak up water. Factors like vehicle weight, tire surface area, and frequency of passes will affect the depth of compaction. Water, whether rain or sprinkler irrigation, adds to compaction by lubricating soil particles and forcing them closer together.
Cover crops will restore your orchard. The deep roots of living cover crops create spaces and channels in the soil which increase water infiltration. After mowing or disking, the decomposing plant matter will increase the organic matter content which will prevent soil compaction and its adverse effects. As organic matter decays, nutrients are released and are available to succeeding crops. Sandy soils benefit greatly from cover crops because organic matter holds more than 18-20 times its weight in water. Just 1% organic matter in the top six inches holds up to 27,000 gallons of water per acre. 
Benefits to Bees
While cover crops influence soil health, they provide blooming forage at the right time to significantly increase the pollination potential of the honey bees hired to set nuts. Timing and preparation matter. Planting brassicas like mustard, radish, and canola early in October will allow them to provide critical nutrition to the hungry bees awaiting the almond bloom.
Growers with early blooming insect-pollinated crops like almonds can also use cover crops to feed bee colonies. The majority of the 2.7 million colonies in the US are shipped to almond pollination in January, a time when colonies have not had forage for months and are naturally at their weakest. Although there may be warm days in January and February, California’s central valley doesn’t provide any blooming plants. Colonies must patiently wait for the nectar and pollen resources of almond bloom to appear.
When foraging bees bring back the first pollen of the new year the bees inside the colony begin to rear larvae. These larvae emit a pheromone which stimulates more foraging bees to seek out flowers and pollinate them. This positive feedback loop will continue if resources are available.
A brassica cover crop mix seeded in the fall, like our Seeds for Bees Mustard mix, will bloom 2-6 weeks before almonds, providing critical nutrition at a time when it benefits growers the most.
Research shows colonies reared in pollen limited conditions produce workers that forage less often and are less efficient at communicating , which could have a significant impact on yield.
The many benefits of cover crops are smart farming for soil, water, and enhanced pollination. Seeds for Bees grower Blake Davis has seen his orchards improve significantly since enrolling in the program. He explains, “Our soils are heavy and can become compacted. Cover cropping with the PAm Mustard Mix has helped the water infiltrate by breaking up the soil and adding organic matter”.
For more information on how you can promote sustainable farming and enhanced honey bee health, contact me at email@example.com or by calling 916-287-3035.
This time of year, I look forward to the opportunities to get together with friends, family, and colleagues in the industry. The conference season is underway! I've seen many of you at the California State Beekeepers Association convention and the Almond Conference. And, look for PAm at the American Honey Producers Association Conference and American Beekeeping Federation Conference in January. In many ways attending these annual conferences feels a lot like a homecoming. Old friends and colleagues share funny stories from the past year. We gather for dinner in numbers large enough to dwarf my family’s holiday gathering. It is an opportunity for those of us in the industry to learn about the latest research findings, create plans to address issues, and set goals for the upcoming year.
As manager of the Seeds for Bees program I never tire of talking about forage. The lineup of speakers the California State Beekeepers invited this year gave me plenty to be excited about! I was very pleased to hear a wide range of presentations address nutrition and its connection to decreased bee health when adequate forage isn’t available. Bob Curtis at the Almond Board of California, Dr. Ramesh Sagili at Oregon State University, Dr. Marla Spivak at the University of Minnesota, and Dr. Vincent Ricigliano at the USDA ARS all touched on the important role nutrition plays in the vigor, lifespan, and immunity of honey bees. I was also happy to hear the same message echoed in the keynote address made by Karen Ross, Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. She spoke to the crucial role cover crops and hedgerows play in supporting healthy bee populations that are needed to maintain most of California’s $54 billion agriculture industry.
It is satisfying when policy makers, business owners, growers, researchers, beekeepers, and stewardship organizations all talk about the need for more diverse forage on the landscape. However, a greater sense of satisfaction is achieved when someone heeds the advice of experts and plants forage based on tested recommendations. David Fenn, Director of Operations for the fresh grape brand Sun World, and Sejal Patel, Project Manager with Sun World’s parent company Renewable Resource Group, are such two people. Sun World’s primary job is to grow delicious fresh grapes for domestic and international markets. In addition to bringing fruit to our tables, Sejal and David have also identified a secondary service Sun World can provide: land stewardship. They are taking honey bee health issues seriously by committing to enhance their vineyards with cover crops and hedgerows. Sun World management also values good soil health, water use efficiency, and erosion control. Both cover crops and hedgerows will help them achieve these sustainability goals.
Sejal contacted me in early 2017 to assist her in creating a plan to develop Sun World’s vineyards into a valuable food resource for bees. We both quickly learned our partnership had implications far beyond increasing honey bee forage. I learned about all of Sun World’s sustainability goals, and she learned cover crops and hedgerows do more than provide bee food. As 2017 comes to a close, I am happy to report in 2018 Sun World grapes will be grown among more than 100 acres of cover crops and 1,220 linear feet of hedgerows!
The Seeds for Bees seed mixes have been proven to work well in almond orchards. Along with avocados, cherries, prunes, and wine grapes, we now know that these mixes are a great resource for table grape growers as well. If improving bee and soil health is a goal you are trying to reach, the technical advice PAm provides can help you get there. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. I wasn’t kidding, I really don’t get tired of talking about the benefits of forage!
Seeds for Bees grower Blake Davis and Billy Synk talk about the multiple benefits of cover crop planting in the California almond orchard Blake manages.
Photo courtesy of Scott Hathaway.
Where did you grow up? When did you first start working in agriculture?
I grew up in Visalia. My first job after college was in the construction industry. When I was 25, I realized I wanted to work outside instead and transferred to ag.
Where did you go to school? What other credentials do you have?
I went to the College of the Sequoias. I also have my PCA and QAL license.
What was your work experience before your position at Pacific Gold Agriculture?
I was a PCA for Helena Chemical.
What do you grow?
Almonds, Pecans, and Walnuts.
How many acres you currently manage?
Pacific Gold manages over 3,500 acres. I oversee 700 acres in the Sacramento Valley. I also assist with management decisions on the remainder of our land in
Why did you start planting Seeds for Bees cover crops?
The long-term sustainability of our land and business. Maintaining healthy
bee populations and soil quality is our goal and cover cropping helps us achieve that.
What other things have you done for bees?
We planted 3,600 feet of pollinator-friendly hedgerows with plans to install
more hedgerows adjacent to other blocks. We also have a company-wide policy of only spraying at night. This is necessary for honey bee safety.
What does your beekeeper think of your efforts?
He is excited about the changes to our orchard. Because of the diverse forage our orchards provide he can bring his bees in earlier in winter before almond bloom. He also says the hives that are stronger when they leave.
What are the soil benefits that you have seen?
Our soils are heavy and can become compacted. Cover cropping with the PAm Mustard Mix has helped the water infiltrate by breaking up the soil and adding organic matter.
Are there some challenges related to cover crop in almond orchards?
How did you overcome those?
The transition has presented any significant challenges. I was initially worried about too much dead plant matter on the orchard floor come harvest, but it did not hinder us down as we anticipated.
What are the biggest issues almond growers face today?
Water and bee health. If we don’t have water to grow trees, and bees to set nuts our industry will suffer.
How do you prevent frost damage with an orchard that has cover crops?
We use thermometers and soil water sensors. If temperatures drop, we will mow down whatever vegetation is growing. Most years frost isn’t an issue.
What is your favorite way to eat almonds?
Right off the tree.
Are your children old enough to help out?
I wish! My kids do enjoy going into the orchard and seeing the different stages of growth throughout the season. They also like to watch the equipment being used during harvest.
What do you like to do when you are not working?
When I’m not working or thinking about working, I enjoy spending time with my family and being outdoors.
What tool could you not live without?
My pickup truck….one tool I wouldn’t mind losing is my cell phone. (laughter)
A big thank you goes out to Blake Davis for spending some of his Friday evening with me. And, be sure to check out the new Seeds for Bees video featuring testimonials from Blake and beekeepers who provide pollination services for almond growers.
Want to help shape who you hear from next? Send me your suggestions and ideas at Billy@ProjectApism.org or 614-330-6932. Stay tuned for more interviews in upcoming posts!
Director of Pollination Programs
Some growers have questions when it comes to the decision to plant cover crops. Almond growers, in particular, may be concerned that planting forage for honey bees, while a huge benefit for their hired pollinators, their soil quality and maintenance, may offer unwanted competition to their main concern: almond blossoms.
In the spring of this year, important work addressing this concern was published. I am pleased to present the work of collaborating scientists from University of California Davis and Swedish University of Agriculture Sciences. The paper is titled “Wildflower Plantings Do Not Compete with Neighboring Almond Orchards for Pollinator Visits” and can be accessed here.
The idea of cover crop bloom competition is not new. I have often heard a hesitation to plant cover crops due to a fear that bees may be distracted by the flowers the cover crops provide, thus being less efficient at the job they were hired to do to pollinate almond blossoms.
The Seeds for Bees program at Project Apis m. works with growers to enhance the health and vitality of honey bee colonies while improving crop production. Pollination is a very crucial step in getting the best almond crop possible and hiring beekeepers to carry out pollination is no small cost. Most growers spend 10%-20% of their annual operating costs on pollination services. Apprehension to plant other attractive flowers was understandable.
Our Seeds for Bees growers can attest, to date, no grower has experienced a lowered net set or yield after they started planting Seeds for Bees seed mixes for cover crops. In fact, many are now noticing what beekeepers have noticed: As the diversity of a bee’s diet increases so does it's health and vitality.
Almonds are California’s number one agricultural export, and they contribute more than $11 billion to the state economy.1 The success of this important crop must be protected as organizations like Project Apis m. implement projects dedicated to improving bee health. Thankfully, funders have invested in research and researchers have dedicated their expertise to studying whether or not bees are enticed by alternate sources of food during almond bloom. The team found the number of honey bee visits to almond blossoms was not affected by the presence of a wildflower strip just outside the orchard.2 They concluded, “Alternative flowering resources can be added to almond orchards, even during blooms, without jeopardizing crop pollination.”
I am an advocate for cover crops because I have seen the practice have a significant positive impact on bee and soil health. I am glad work on the issue of cover crop competition has been done. I get excited when new research comes out related to cover crops in orchards. Cover crops are a powerful tool. Let’s make sure they are used in a way that supports both beekeeper and grower. This is what legendary beekeeper John Miller calls “smart farming!” You can count on PAm to continually improve our value to you as a resource for beekeepers and growers alike and share relevant research as it develops in the future.
Director of Pollination Programs
Project Apis m.
Reach Billy Synk at Billy@ProjectApism.org or (614) 330-6932
I recently traveled back to my home state of Ohio for a family wedding. On the first leg of my trip from Sacramento to Phoenix I sat next to a newly retired gentleman named Dan. As we chatted, he was pleased to learn I work with bees. He wanted to get back into beekeeping and had a lot of questions for me. He reminisced about his childhood when he and his father had a handful of colonies that helped pollinate the family garden. Before last spring, the last time Dan was in a hive was 50 years ago. Keeping bees for him was “something easy and fun to do, and the free honey was a nice addition.”
When Dan decided to get back into bees he didn’t realize a significant event in the history of U.S. beekeeping happened between his child hood and the spring of 2016. Varroa destructor (varroa) arrived! Ever since its introduction into the U.S. in 1987 the parasitic mite has devastated colonies across the country. It has changed the very nature of beekeeping. Keeping hives alive and healthy year-round requires more inputs and skill than ever before. Dan himself can attest to the increased difficulty of keeping bees. “They are like a completely different animal than what I remember. They are hard to keep alive. I can’t take the devastation of opening another cover only to find dead bees!”
Granted, Dan lacks experience with modern beekeeping. I admit this is an anecdotal story. But his sentiment is pertinent to the nature of 21st century beekeeping in the U.S. His message echos what any commercial beekeeper can tell you: varroa mites are having a profound effect on the health and vitality of honey bees. Project Apis m. has heard the concerns of beekeepers and has responded by prioritizing varroa-related research. We have also endorsed and sponsored other organizations’ efforts to combat varroa. For example, we assisted in the creation of the Tools for Varroa Management Guide. Please refer to this downloadable guide for all your questions on monitoring, sampling, and treatment options.
We are also proud to be a part of Pollinator Partnership’s Mite-A-Thon. This event is a national effort to collect mite infestation data and to visualize varroa infestations in honey bee colonies across North America within a one-week window. All beekeepers in Canada, United States and Mexico are encouraged to participate. The Mite-A-Thon is happening during the week of September 9th and is free to participate. Participants will monitor the level of mites (number of mites per 100 bees) using a standardized protocol utilizing two common methods of assessment (powdered sugar roll or alcohol wash) and then enter data, including location, total number of hives, number of hives tested, local habitat, and the number of varroa mites counted from each hive. The published information will not identify individual participants.
Varroa, and the viruses it vectors, is a significant driver of honey bee colony mortality. Yet, indicators suggest that some beekeepers are not correctly monitoring varroa infestations and therefore are not able to connect infestation to colony loss. Please join Project Apis m. and Pollinator Partnership in helping spread the world about proper varroa management by participating in the Mite-a-Thon. The varroa monitoring data will be anonymously uploaded to www.mitecheck.com. For the first time ever there will be publicly available data about varroa mite levels of colonies at the same time of year throughout three major countries. I look forward to analyzing the varroa infestation map. Will your hives be represented on it?
Director of Pollination Programs
Project Apis m
Reach Billy Synk at Billy@ProjectApism.org or (614) 330-6932
As this year’s accomplishments end, we look towards next season and the joys and headaches it will bring. Our minds linger on questions about successes and failures and how they relate to management decisions. Right now, beekeepers throughout the country are deciding how to treat for mites and pathogens. As the summer continues into fall, forage becomes scarce. Hives will need to find an adequate amount of late blooming flowers or get expensive protein supplement patties fed to them. With habitat and forage disappearing across the country (see The Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund) the latter is the new normal for most beekeeping operations. The choices made this Fall will determine the health and vigor of the bees needed to pollinate almonds in the Spring. Few people realize the amount of bee forage present in a North Dakota grassland in the Fall significantly affects an $11 billion-dollar industry in California in the Spring.
As growers are watching almond hulls split and dry, they are making important decisions. Harvest is a busy time of year. As the rainy season draws nearer the risk of exposing the nuts to moisture increases. Growers are also making choices in the Fall that will impact spring pollination. There is a small window of time after harvest and before the first winter rains that is ideal for planting PAm bee forage cover crops. Growers who want the strongest bees possible are making choices this Fall that will affect the pollination of their crops come spring. To ensure an early bloom, cover crops should be planted by October 5th. However, some orchards with late harvesting varieties might not be ready by then. Cover crops will still germinate and help the soil if planted after October 5, but the hive-strengthening aspects are diminished. Every year hungry bee hives get placed in orchards before the almonds bloom. Growers are now realizing hives that can forage on cover crops early are stronger come the second week of February when almond bloom usually occurs. Synchronizing cover crop bloom with the bees’ arrival is the best way to take full advantage of all the benefits of the Seeds for Bees program. As a grower once told me, “The bees show up before almonds, so my cover crop might as well be blooming so they have something eat!”
I am now taking orders for Seeds for Bees seed mixes. The requirements and details of the program can be found here. Feel free to call or email me with questions. Cover crops increase the health and vitality of bees while improving crop production. Get involved today!
Director of Pollination Programs
Project Apis m.
Reach Billy Synk at Billy@ProjectApism.org or (614) 330-6932
California agriculture is extremely diverse. Over 400 commodities are produced in a wide variety of growing conditions. Irrigation and fertilization are critical to an efficient and productive crop yield. Water discharges from agricultural operations in California include runoff which can affect water quality by transporting pollutants, including pesticides, sediment, nutrients, salts, pathogens, and heavy metals, from cultivated fields into surface waters. While groundwater quality can be impaired by nitrogen and salts when they leach below the rootzone. Cover crops can play a role in protecting surface water quality by slowing down run off during rain events and by supplementing nitrogen without the use of fertilizers.
All the land used to grow almonds in California is regulated by The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (CVWB). It is one of nine Regional Water Boards in California. Stretching from the Oregon border to Los Angeles County, the Central Valley is about 60,000 square miles or nearly 40 percent of the state. It includes about 75 percent of the state’s irrigated agricultural land. In 2003, the CVWB created a specific program designed to address water quality activities associated with irrigated lands. This program is referred to as the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program. Growers must join and pay into regional water quality coalitions which do the monitoring and outreach necessary to ensure water quality standards are met. Please refer to the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program for more details.
As part of the Irrigated Regulatory Program, starting in 2015, all growers are required to have a nitrogen management plan. This plan will indicate how much nitrogen is needed and identify the sources where it is coming from. Accurately determining the amount of nitrogen being applied to an agricultural system can be challenging. Fertilizers, manures, composts, cover crops, and sometimes irrigation water all add nitrogen to soil, and figuring out how much is needed can be complicated. Fortunately, the Almond Board of California and SureHarvest have created an online assessment tool to make this process easier and more streamlined. The online assessment tools needed to create a nitrogen management plan are available at the California Almond Sustainability Program (CASP) website. Here almond growers can create a private account, and information entered is kept confidential.
One very useful tool provided is a Nitrogen Calculator. Based on the nitrogen budget model developed by Dr. Patrick Brown of UC Davis, this calculator simplifies the process of budgeting nitrogen for almond growers. The calculator takes into consideration yield estimates, leaf sampling results and nitrogen that comes from other sources, like bee forage cover crops. It stores data by orchard block, making updates easy as information changes. Budget components can be cloned and applied to other orchards or used in subsequent years. All almond growers can use the online model to create budgets but must be participants in CASP for the data storage aspect, which eliminates the need to re-enter all the data when revising budgets during the growing season. Data can be printed, displayed as a PDF file, or exported into a database.
Almond growers who plant cover crops are helping bees while simultaneously amending their soil with a free source of nitrogen. However, without knowing how much nitrogen is being fixed into the soil by legume cover crops like PAm Clover Mix, growers won’t know how much to reduce their fertilizer application rate. Using the Nitrogen Calculator will give growers clarity about how to manage their operation. Depending on the strength of the stand (poor, good, or great) and the incorporation method (mow only or discing in), almond growers are getting 15-84 lbs. N/acre from the cover crop alone.(1) Once the nitrogen from the cover crop is factored in, the calculator will then give detailed recommendations about how much additional fertilizer is needed and when to apply it.
Almond trees need nitrogen every year for two reasons: 1) to assist perennial growth, and 2) to replace the nitrogen lost by the annual harvesting of almonds. The nitrogen in the roots, trunk and branches increases annually by 25-30 lbs./acre.(2) The hulls, shells, leaves, debris, and kernels collected each year during harvest are responsible for depleting nitrogen from the tree. The average amount of nitrogen lost each year from harvested crop pruning, and leaf fall is 68 lbs./acre of nitrogen for every 1000 kernel lbs./acre harvested. (3) Higher kernel yields are positively correlated with higher nitrogen demand. Growers can use a previous year’s yield data to estimate how much nitrogen will be needed during the current growing year, but ideally update during the season the calculation as the grower gets a better idea of what the yield is likely to be.
After the amount of required nitrogen is determined, growers can make a choice about what source(s) the nitrogen will come from. For example, if an orchard yielded 1000 lbs./acre of kernels the nitrogen required for a successful crop the next year will be 95 lbs. nitrogen/acre. Take note that the required nitrogen is greater than the nitrogen demand because nitrogen use is not 100% efficient. Applying only 68 pounds of nitrogen for every 1000 kernel pounds will not meet the tree’s need, because the application efficiency of nitrogen is not 100%. (4) If a cover crops is providing 84 lbs. nitrogen/acre, then the amount of additional nitrogen that needs to be applied with fertilizer is only 11 lbs./acre. If this orchard didn’t have a cover crop, the grower would have to apply all the recommended 95 lbs. nitrogen/acre with fertilizer alone.
In summary, cover crops can add a significant amount of nitrogen to orchards. Having accurate data about the necessary amount is the key to wise fertilizer use. Please refer to the following links for more information:
1.Brown, P.H., & Zhang, Q.(2008). Nitrogen fertilization recommendation model for almond [Microsoft Excel spreadsheet model]. Retrieved from http://www.sarep.ucdavis.edu/grants/reports/brown/nmodel.html
2.Brown, P., 2012. Presentation held at the 40th Almond Conference in Sacramento. December 12, 2012.
3.Saa Silva, S., Muhammad, S., Sanden, B., Laca, E., Brown, P., 2012. Almond early-season sampling and in-season nitrogen maximizes productivity, minimizes loss.
4.Doll, D., (2012 May 19). Estimating Nitrogen Needs = Estimating Your Crop. http://thealmonddoctor.com/2012/05/19/estimating-nitrogen-needs-estimating-your-crop/
Please contact Billy Synk at Billy@ProjectApism.org for questions or comments.
Director of Pollination Programs
What would happen if we put all the known best practices in action for our bees? This project implements all our best tools- Varroa management, pesticide pollinator protections, supplemental forage and beekeeper/grower communications- exciting right? Tune in for this webinar about a really important project funded by our Healthy Hives 2020 initiative!
Click Here to Register for “The Keys to Colony Success”
Wed, Jun 21, 2017 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM EDT
With Julie Shapiro, Coalition Facilitator, Keystone Policy Center, Keystone, CO, and Mike Smith, Project Director, Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC), West Lafayette, IN
Visit the HH2020 web page for additional information and register for other upcoming HH2020 webinars below:
Click Here to Register for “Tracking the Changing Deformed Wing Virus”
Mon, Jun 19, 2017 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM EDT
With Stephen Martin, Ph.D., Professor, School of Environment & Life Sciences, University of Salford, Manchester, UK
Click Here to Register for “Smarter Hives, Healthier Bees”
Fri, Jun 23, 2017 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM EDT
With Joseph Cazier, Ph.D. and Ed Hassler, Ph.D. of the Center for Analytics Research and Education, Appalachian State University, and James Wilkes, Ph.D., Computer Science Department, Appalachian State University, and Founder, HiveTracks.com
The work we do at Project Apis m. enhances the health and vitality of honey bees while improving crop production. Farms and orchards depend on bee pollination, and bees need the nutritional resources these spaces provide. Setting up meetings and events that facilitate an exchange of knowledge is the best way to engage with the growing community in a collaborative way. It’s important to remember the honey bee is a creature native to Europe. Here in the United States, the managed row crops, trees, and weeds of the countryside are its natural habitat.
In an effort to inform growers about the beneficial aspects of planting bee forage, Project Apis m. is hosting a Cover Crop Workshop on June 28th. Participants will be educated on the details of managing cover crops that will benefit pollination, bee vitality and soil health. Dr. Emily Symmes, Area IPM Advisor with University of California Cooperative Extension, will start by explaining the role of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) in orchard systems. Orchard systems advisor, Dr. Dani Lightle, will be speaking about how some cover crops affect and suppress nematodes. Tom Johnson, Agronomist at Kamprath Seeds, will explain the timing and techniques associated with good cover crop management. I will be speaking about cover crop effects on water use, pollination, and bee health. I will also address how cover cropping fits under the umbrella of sustainable farming and how that might translate to increased business opportunities. Taking place in Glenn County, California, the event is free to anyone who would like to attend. Free lunch will be provided to all those that RSVP to Billy Synk at Billy@ProjectApism.org.
April 4, 2017
As the world’s largest pollination event, the California almond bloom, comes to a close, beekeepers everywhere are asking themselves one question: Where do I take my bees now? As spring turns to summer here in California the foraging opportunities become more scarce. Surely there are pollination-for-hire jobs that beekeepers can try to fill. But the number of these contracts is limited and can’t support our nation’s 2.5 million colonies. Even if it were easy to find, the nutrition provided by some of these crops is of poor quality (e.g., blueberry 13%-14% protein). Historically, middle America has served as a summer vacation spot for many hives. Bees that have worked hard pollinating almonds get shipped to America’s heartland to get fat and happy. In fact, 75% of the nation’s honey bee colonies are found in just 8 states in the summer.
Places like North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, Nebraska and Missouri used to have far more bee supportive flowers than they do now. Bees are under enough stress as it is. Year round, they are getting fed on by varroa mites that transfer disease. Interestingly, research indicates access to diverse, nutritious forage actually helps bees’ natural immune systems and has a direct impact on pollinator health (Alaux et al. 2010). This is why it’s alarming when vast amounts of forage in the upper Midwest and great plains regions disappear. From 2008-2011 alone, 23 million acres of grasslands have been destroyed and converted into cropland. This means there is now less land to support bee health, honey production, monarch butterflies, songbirds, pheasants, quail and wildlife, in general. The need for more forage is urgent!