While honey bees have always been the star of the show for almond pollination, we know other pollinators play important roles in our food supply. So as we continue celebrating National Pollinator Week, we’re highlighting a native bee that may someday join in pollinating almonds. Early research suggests that integrating blue orchard bees (BOBs) may improve pollination efficiency, reduce cost for farmers, and increase the reliability of almond production.
In the current pollination system, almond tree buds burst into beautiful pink and white blooms in February and March, and as the trees blossom, honey bees forage for pollen and nectar in the orchard. When the bees move from tree to tree, they pollinate almond blossoms along the way. Every almond you eat exists because a honey bee pollinated an almond blossom, so there is a large demand for honey bees during pollination season, and beekeepers transport many honey bee hives to California’s Central Valley to do the job.
Bee researchers are exploring whether it’s possible to utilize blue orchard bees for California almonds and beyond as a supplement to honey bees – to share some of the work of almond pollination, as well as the other crops that rely on honey bees each year. Because of their pollination efficiency, BOBs may help reduce pollinating costs to farmers and increase the reliability of almond production.
In February, when California’s almond trees are in bloom, BOBs will venture out to collect pollen during days that barely reach the 50-degree mark, while honey bees are more apt to avoid such temperatures. In addition, because honey bees attach pollen to their back legs, they tend to spread less of it than BOBs, which collect it on their furry bodies.
The challenge with utilizing BOBs, though, is figuring out how to produce enough of the tunnel-nesting bees and how to encourage them to stay in the desired pollination location.
Instead of living in large hives like honey bees, BOBs make individual nests for their young in hollow plant stems and leftover beetle burrows in wood. It takes humans to gently coax them to nest densely together in boxes and build populations large enough to support honey bee pollination in valuable fruit and nut trees.
Another part of the issue is the life cycle of BOBs. It takes an entire year – spring to spring – for BOBs to reach adulthood. In contrast, the worker honey bee reproductive process requires only 24 days to produce a flying adult.
“It is not as easy to work with blue orchard bees,” said Theresa Pitts-Singer, a research entomologist with the USDA Bee Lab in Logan, Utah who has been studying the species for the past 16 years. So, it will take additional research to figure out the best way to work with BOBs for almond orchard pollination.
In the meantime, the almond community continues to take action to support honey bee health during bloom and beyond. Since 1995, almond farmers and processors have supported 113 bee health research projects, more than any other crop group.1 And with learnings from that research and in partnership with universities, government agencies, nonprofits, and others, the Almond Board of California established the Honey Bee Best Management Practices (BMPs) for California Almonds. These guidelines provide key recommendations to everyone involved in the pollination process to make the orchard a safe and welcoming place for honey bees while balancing the need to protect the developing crop.
1Gene Brandi. Vice President, American Beekeeping Federation.