CATCH THE BUZZ – Almond Orchards and Sustainable Beekeeping

Change is Constant

By: John Miller ,Professional Beekeeper

We are told change is a constant. Change, constant change is certainly true in beekeeping and almond orchards.

In a review of Miller Honey Farms records from 2003, I see the price for western clover honey was $1.50/lb., and the average almond pollination fee was $45.00.
Dramatic changes have occurred to the North Dakota landscape since 2003; resulting in much smaller honey crops. An expansion of almond acreage drove demand for pollination services during the same time.

Beekeepers struggle with the new normal.

Almond growers struggle with a challenging regulatory environment, and skewed public perception; growers as poor stewards of resources.

Beekeepers move their outfits to California to meet the pollination requirements of the almond growers. We have to. The income from pollination work is now more vital to our operations than honey production. This is the new normal.

Look at almond pollination work, and the almond grower – differently.
Below, are several tactical changes [well underway] in almond orchards. The changes become strategic for beekeeper success. The almond orchard is the Launchpad for sustainable American beekeeping.

A significant change is occurring on the floor of the almond orchard. Growers are embracing the idea of cover crops in their orchards in early spring. It seems counter-intuitive to plant a cover crop of wild radish and mustard blooming at the same time as the almond tree. It is not.

Seeded correctly, 90 days or so prior to almond bloom, the cover crop sets it’s deep taproot during a dormant time in the orchard. This is the same time of year winter rains fall on almond acreage. These cover crop root systems open the soil. Rainfall stays in the orchard, not running off. This benefit to soil health is unquestioned. The open soil is rainfall-recharged. Growers need not pump groundwater for irrigation; rainfall recharged soil is restorative.

While the cover crop is in bloom, the nitrogen transfer from plant to soil improves soil health. The public can see a forage project in full flower, and not appreciate the relationship between the cover crop, the soil health, and the benefits to pollinators. All the bees in those orchards benefit. Migrating butterflies, native and ground-nesting bees also benefit. Forage projects serve the needs of many species. It is a fact beekeepers and orchardists see; and can share with the public.

A growing body of work suggests radish and mustard taproots impart anti-nematode properties into the soil – improving tree health. A productive orchard is like a productive beehive – it requires constant husbandry from both orchardist and beekeeper.

Forage projects anchor bees in the orchard to the orchard. On good weather days, the available almond blossom pollen has been harvested by the bees by mid-afternoon. Bees very much prefer almond pollen; it is very nutritious. Once the available pollen is harvested, the bees can drop to the floor of the orchard to continue foraging; not flying beyond the orchard – getting into trouble foraging on other plants at risk for a pesticide application.

The above ideas are not new. What is new is the perception. California is the most populous state in the nation. Most Californians have scant knowledge of where food comes from. Beekeepers and Almond Growers work to meet an [ever] expanding set of regulations and expenses.

Compliance and Sustainability in many industries now involves senior-level resources. At many companies, the Compliance and Sustainability vice-president reports directly to the CEO. Beekeepers and Almond Growers have an important Sustainability story to tell. The Almond industry is the keystone of sustainable beekeeping. The almond bloom is the first annual naturally occurring nutrition for bees. Beehives recover from winters challenges in almond orchards. Beekeepers know the stimulation from almond pollination work sets hives on the path to spring and summer prosperity.

Ideas behind sustaining the hive and the orchard are not new. What is new is the scrutiny almond growers face as good agricultural stewards. Growers and Beekeepers are good environmental stewards – and can work together to showcase our work. Forage projects meet the Sustainability.