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.