Almond Pollination

Posts

Migratory Beekeeping

Some of our largest customers at Wildflower Meadows are migratory beekeepers.  Migratory beekeepers in the United States begin each new year in California pollinating almonds.  After that their paths diverge.  Some move their bees to orange groves to produce orange blossom honey.  Other beekeepers continue on to Oregon and Washington to pollinate cherries, cranberries, and apples.  By summer, many of these same beekeepers can be found in the Great Plains producing clover honey.  In the fall and winter, most of these very same beekeepers move their bees to warmer climates, like these here in Southern California, for over-wintering.

What makes all this possible is the existence of the vast United States interstate highway system, the availability of large flatbed trucks, and forklifts.  Migratory beekeepers keep their bees on pallets, usually four to a pallet – most usually known as “four-ways.”  The pallet doubles as a bottom board for the colonies, each of which are held in place by clips.  When it comes time to move the bees, the beekeeper can easily pick up a pallet of four colonies at a single time with a forklift.  Giant 18-wheel flatbed trucks are loaded with upwards of 400 colonies each.  Depending on the distance of the move, the load is netted down, and the truckers head on their way to more abundant pastures.

While migratory beekeeping benefits the bees in certain ways – the bees always find themselves in the midst of flowering crops or fields – it is hard on them in other ways.  The constant moving can lead to stress, which can result in queen losses.  And, keeping bees on pallets and in close quarters is not necessarily ideal because it can lead to the spread of mites and diseases.

Migratory beekeeping can also be hard on the beekeepers, who spend large amounts of the year away from home and family.  The life of a migratory beekeeper features many days on the road, staying in cheap hotels, eating fast food, and almost all of the of time worrying about planning and logistics.

Despite all this hardship, not enough praise can be offered to these brave beekeepers, and the contributions that they make to our food supply.  Without migratory beekeepers and their invaluable pollination services, our crops would suffer greatly – and we would too.  Migratory beekeepers are among the true heroes of beekeeping!

Photo courtesy of Allen’s Honey Company, Brawley, California, pollinators of almonds, melons, alfalfa and countless vegetable seed crops.

Which Direction Should Beehives Face For Best Pollination?

Many experienced beekeepers suggest that the entrance of a beehive ideally should face towards the south or to the east.  The southern exposure makes sense.  During the winter months – at least in the northern hemisphere – the sun sits low on the southern horizon.  The direct rays of sunshine on the entrance during the late fall and early spring enable a beehive to potentially gain some sunlight and extra flying hours.  An eastern exposure is also valuable because when facing east, the bees tend to get an earlier start on foraging throughout the season regardless of the angle of the sun.

Most of the time, however, it doesn’t matter all that much.  Many backyard and urban beekeepers are limited in their options on how and where to place their bees.  The truth is, bees are flexible, and most of the time they adjust well to the environment they are in.  When it comes to almond pollination – which is about to take place this month – almond orchard owners take no chances on the placement of the beehives that pollinate their groves.  Each year, a staggering 1.6 million colonies are rented for almond pollination.  Almond growers pay a small fortune to rent these bees, and they usually have specific requests on how they would like them placed.

One of the issues affecting bee pollination of almonds is weather.  Almonds are pollinated in February, a typical month of adverse weather not only in California, but most everywhere in the United States.  Honeybees do not fly until daytime temperatures exceeds 55º F.  Obviously, a grower cannot control the weather, but he or she can control the way that the rented colonies are placed in the grove so that the bees obtain as much sunshine as possible.  Growers typically request that beehives should face the sun, and the boxes should not be shaded by the trees or by other beehives.

To give an almond grower good value, the beekeeper should strive to place most beehive entrances facing due east or southeast, so that the bees catch the early morning sun and get off to an early start.  Also, a certain percentage of the colonies should face west.  The west-facing colonies will often fly right up to the evening hours, usually after the east-facing colonies have shut down.  Plus, on a day where rainy weather clears up later in the afternoon, the west-facing bees might still have time to venture out, while the east-facing colonies remain shut down.

Almond Pollination

Anyone in the business of growing almonds appreciates the challenges of pollination.  First, unlike most other fruits and nuts, almonds are not self-pollinating; they require cross-pollination from both another almond tree and another almond variety.  Second, unlike other crops, the almond crop is not thinned.  Therefore, the degree of pollination activity required is extraordinarily greater than in other crops.  Finally, from the perspective of the pollinating insect (typically a honeybee), the timing of almond bloom – mid-February, which is the lowest point of colony strength – could not be worse.

The best way for almond growers to ensure an abundant crop is to have as many working honey bees flying out of each rented colony as possible.  Successful pollination requires not just bees, but – most critically – strong and healthy bees.  For maximum pollination effectiveness, a grower needs bee colonies that are ideally eight frames in strength.  Research has shown that the number of pollinating bees delivered by an eight-frame colony when compared to a four-frame colony is not twice as many (as one would think); but rather, is more like four times as many!  In a weaker four-frame colony, a higher percentage of bees need to stay at home inside the box to keep the colony warm.

In order to be able to deliver strong and healthy bees for almonds, beekeepers need to have colonies headed by high quality queen bees, and preferably young queen bees as well.  Beekeepers also need to extensively feed their colonies both syrup and pollen substitute patties beginning in late summer, and continuing all the way through to at least Thanksgiving.  Fall bees that are headed for almond pollination should be tested for varroa mites, and treated if necessary.  With a disciplined regimen of regular feeding, monitoring and TLC, beekeepers can – and do! – produce what is seemingly unthinkable – an eight frame strong and healthy colony in the middle of February.

As this is being posted, Wildflower Meadows is sending our best “eight frame and greater” colonies on a journey to the almond orchards of Bakersfield, CA to help contribute our share to the world’s largest annual pollination event…