By Craig W. Anderson

Bees are found doing their jobs in almond trees near Escalon. Photo by Vicky Boyd

Apis mellifera – the honey bee – has arrived in San Joaquin County’s almond orchards to do its pollination thing and almond growers are more than satisfied about the 2018 pollination. Almond trees require cross-pollination and honey bees help pollen move from tree to tree, setting the crop. Almond trees are one of the 90 U.S. crops pollinated by commercial honey bees annually; worldwide, 33 percent of the global food supply relies on pollinators.

Flight hours, weather good

 "The bee flight hours have been very encouraging at this point, nearing mid-February," said Dave Phippen, almond grower and partner in Travaille and Phippen almond processors near Ripon. "So far in Ripon we’ve had 19 hours, compared to 17 hours last year at this time."

Phippen said temperature and wind are crucial and both have been more conducive to bees pollinating this year than last. "Over the last few years the winds have been in excess of 15 mph and were accompanied by temperatures uncomfortable for bees and that created challenges."

Bloom, bees, beekeepers

Between February and March the almond buds bloom and the honey bees forage for pollen and nectar, moving from tree to tree, pollinating along the way. Each bee-fertilized flower grows into an almond. Following the almond pollination the beekeepers move their bees to different locations around the country to pollinate more than 90 other crops.

"Bloom began early due to warm weather," said Escalon grower Kevin Fondse. "Now, it’s slowed because of the cool weather." He also said bloom was "all over the place and variable on different orchards. I think the chill hours may have been off somewhat."

He said there was "no problem getting bees this year. Last year it was rain and this year the cold weather’s affected the bloom. The Sacramento Valley’s way ahead, than us, then other regions." Fondse agreed that "There have been a lot of good days for bees to get out and do their job this year. Overall, bees looked good."

Reciprocal goodness for trees and bees

The bees are good for almonds and the nut is also good for the bees as they supply the insect’s first natural source of food each spring, the almond pollen being very nutritious for bees. According to the Almond Board of California, the beehives routinely leave the almond orchards stronger because of their pollinating activities and beekeepers can then divide many hives to grow their apiaries.

ABC funds research

To ensure continued bee health, the Almond Board has funded more than 100 research projects since the 1995 creation of the Honey Bee Health Taskforce.

In past years, a concern of the almond industry was that bee availability could be reduced due to a number of factors such as declining bee health, hive death and other causes. "The bees that’ve come here are sufficient and healthy," said Robert Curtis, director of agricultural affairs for the Almond Board. "There are 500,000 colonies in California and we need close to two million. Two-thirds of all hives in the country pollinate almonds."

Bee health threats

Significant bee health issues remain such as the small hive beetle, red imported fire ants on the pallets and a key pest, the varroamite which carries a variety of viruses harmful to bees.

"There are different pests in various regions and what typically stops movement into California are the border inspection stations," Curtis said. "The board is committed to research and encouraging Best Management Practices [BMPs] to stop pests. The beekeepers have stepped up and provided what’s necessary to curtail threats to bees."

The same pests that California deals with are found in other states so beekeepers and agricultural commissioners are all helping the industry cope with threats.

In county almond orchards where was a challenge with worms and insect damage was up this year, not so much here, but overall, Fondse said.

Hive theft ongoing

Curtis mentioned that "hive theft is a continuing problem. They’re targeted because a good quality hive usually receives $100 per rental. However, most thieves don’t bother to disguise the hives and are caught when storing or attempting to rent their stolen hives."

Health conscious consumers

"We respond to consumer demand which is driven in great part by the health benefits of almonds," Phippen said. "Consumers are more health-aware now and they’re looking for fiber and calcium in addition to almond’s other healthy aspects and the ABC’s done a good job of promoting."

He added that the almond board is "watching for new trends such as the millennium audience demanding sustainable foods being farmed in a sustainable fashion, which is what the almond industry is doing. Toward that end, the board created CASP – the California Almonds Sustainable Program – where growers share information with CASP, our nationally accredited program."

Almond production

In 2017 the almond industry produced 2.25 billion pounds of product and the anticipation is that the 2018 crop will be another big one because, said Phippen, "There’s more acreage coming into production, therefore more almonds. 300,000 more acres are planted to almonds and some of that acreage will be coming on this year. I expect in excess of one million acres are now producing statewide."

The one million bearing acres in 2017 included more than 28,000 acres of new acreage coming into production and Curtis expects another 30,000 to begin producing in 2018.

Cooperation by growers, beekeepers

Forages that benefit both bees and almonds are being used with more being continually researched to improve production and, Phippen said, "We coordinate with the bee guys and use chemicals they recommend. We’re completely confident with the cooperation between grower and the beekeepers. The industry wants to increase its growers and we’re blessed this industry is looking to the future led by the almond board."

According to the 2017 San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner’s Crop Report, almonds, despite experiencing a 19.53 percent drop in production value still came through with $349 million good for    third place behind milk’s $362 million and number one grapes ($426 million).