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Maintaining Steady Growth in Almond Pollination


Among all the things growers do to ensure a successful almond harvest, pollination is arguably one of the most important steps. This year has the industry concerned about the impact of both the bad weather and the health of the bees coming into almonds. An Almond Conference 2022 session, where beekeepers, growers and pollinator experts reviewed the latest discoveries in pollination and examined what can be done to establish a healthy and stable bee supply while keeping grower costs down.  

Attendees at The Almond Conference 2022 listen to the latest pollination research and strategies from industry eperts.

Analyzing Self-Fertile Varieties 

Over the past several years, beekeepers have also seen a consistent decline in hives. Between pests, pathogens, poor nutrition and unconventional “predators” like bears, fires, and flooding, an annual colony loss of 40-45% has become the new norm, which has had a negative economic impact on beekeepers and almond producers. 

“Because of these losses and almost uncertainty about the availability of the honeybee colonies for pollination, what the growers have had to deal with are the increasing pollination demands, and that has driven up the prices up as well,” said Dr. Elina Niño, associate professor at UC Davis. 

Since the 1970s, stocking guidelines have recommended two hives of 6-8 good frames of bees, per acre for optimal pollination. However, in today’s landscape, with many more almond acres and with the rise of self-fertile trees, is that still necessary?  

The increase in price is one of the reasons there has been a growing interest in and plantings of self-fertile varieties such as Independence and Shasta.  

“So now the question really is, do they need bees for real, and if so, how many bees?” Niño said.  

In 2020, Niño and her team put this question to the test, conducting two types of trials where they caged self-fertile Independence trees and used netted bags to cover specific portions of branches on trees.  

Their findings showed that there was a much higher nut set on the branches that the bees were not excluded from and a significantly reduced yield in the caged trees. Surprisingly, though, the mass of the kernels of the openly pollinated trees was smaller.  

“What this is telling me is that because we have fewer nuts on the tree, the tree itself is able to distribute those resources into those nuts that are still there, making them bigger and heavier,” Niño said. 

Two years later in 2022, the team further explored their initial findings, this time caging trees in groups of three and involving the Shasta variety. Like their 2020 research, the uncaged trees saw higher yields in both Independence and Shasta varieties.  

While Niño’s research does not answer the question of how many frames of bees are needed for self-fertile varieties, her studies propel the industry to reevaluate the stocking rate for both conventional and self-fertile varieties. 

Utilizing Indoor Storage 

Consistency and stability of costs for beekeepers translate into better cost containment for almond growers. Dr. Brandon Hopkins, assistant research professor at Washington State University, joined the panel to discuss his research on the use of indoor storage of bees during their inactive period. 

Traditionally, bees originating from Idaho are sent to holding yards in California in November before being dispersed at the time of pollination. The problem they are finding is that during this time, they are losing population, spreading diseases and lacking proper nutrition.  

Bee experts began looking at ways to control these factors and opted to try indoor bee storage, which is now taking off in Idaho and Montana. Hopkins says the main benefit to indoor storage is the stability and predictability it provides. Beekeepers and growers find this especially encouraging, considering supply has fluctuated.  

“Indoor storage allows for these bees to be in a very stable temperature, and the bees consume less of their honey storage in a stable temperature,” Hopkins said.  

With the help of the Bee Informed partnership, Hopkins further tested the effects of indoor storage versus outdoor storage. His trial stored bees in three environments: indoors in either Idaho or Montana, outdoors directly outside of the Idaho/Montano facilities, and outdoors in holding yards in California.  

Dr. Brandon Hopkins, assistant research professor at Washington State University, delivered the latest findings on indoor storage of bees.

His findings showed that both sets of bees stored in Idaho/Montana were in better health than the bees in California, particularly in terms of mite and viral disease, proving that indoor storage may be a practice beekeepers want to consider more seriously.  

The adoption of this practice has already been well-received across the industry, and Hopkins predicts more beekeepers will transition to this storage type, especially in the Midwest.  

“At least 500,000 colonies, so almost about 25% of the colonies pollinating almonds are coming out of indoor which is a big percentage for a single management practice,” Hopkins said.  

Pollinator Benefits 

Almond farmers can also contribute to the health of bees simply by planting cover crops, and thanks to the Seeds for Bees program, growers can get seeds for free, said Rory Crowley, director of habitat programs at Project Apis m.  

The Seeds for Bees program encourages growers to plant cover crops in exchange for free seed and other operational advisory services. Applications for the coming fall will open in June. In the first year of implementation, growers are eligible for a $2,500 discount off their total seed purchase, which is enough seed for over 50-120 acres. Second-year growers are also offered a discount, which is a good incentive considering 90-95% of their growers say they plan to continue cover cropping.  

Crowley reiterated that now more than ever, the decision to plant cover crops is more than just about bees; it’s also economical. There’s been immense interest at the corporate and supply chains level, including Walmart and KIND bar, who are seeking suppliers that have “bee-friendly” options. The Almond Board’s cover crop guide also helps growers evaluate the agronomic benefits to their orchards.  

“Not only are we providing technical assistance to things you may not know how to do operationally, but now there are incentives that are being built into the marketplace at some of the hardest times almond growers and beekeepers have ever faced,” Crowley said. “That, in it of itself, is a great thing.” 

In the almond grower world, the demand for Seeds for Bees is booming. In 2022, Seeds for Bees saw a 47% increase, and 72% of their total acreage is in almond systems, and they’re hopeful that trend line will continue to grow. 

“Growers are really keen on adaptability,” Crowley concluded. “We’ve had to do it for millennia and we’re going to have to do it again. We’re going to have to do it every year from here on out, intensely. One of the ways we’re going to have to do that is by planting cover crop.”  

Miles Dakin, director of Bee Friendly Farming at Pollinator Partnership added that this demand is a true testament to the industry’s proactive commitment to agronomics, biodiversity and stewardship. They’ve seen this firsthand at Pollinator Partnership, where 85% of the farmers certified under Bee Friendly Farming are almond growers. 

Investing in the Future 

As times evolve, the Almond Board of California (ABC) recognizes that having bees at a reasonable cost to the grower, while promoting pollinator habitats on farms, go hand-in-hand, and they are investing in the right research to make these things happen.  

“The Almond Board has been investing in bee health research since 1995, and the goal of that is always to bring the value back to the grower by stabilizing the price of almond pollination services and bringing better quality bees to almond pollination.” Nature designed the relationship between almonds and bees and that extends to growers and beekeepers,” concluded Josette Lewis, chief scientific officer at ABC.