By John Holland
About a month from now, billions of bees will get to work pollinating nearly 1 million acres of California almonds.
On a small part of that acreage, growers are providing other flowers for the bees to dine on before and after the almond bloom. They hope to strengthen the insects against disease and other challenges that have reduced their numbers in recent years.
An orchard east of Livingston provided a glimpse Tuesday of how it works – in this case with yellow mustard and daikon radish sown in the fall. They provide nectar and pollen at a time of year when it is not available on most of the nation’s farmland and wild areas.
“It sustains the bees and boosts their health in myriad ways,” said Billy Synk, who runs a program that offers free seeds to almond growers. They can plant them between the tree rows, at orchard edges and at other spots without reducing their nut yield, he said.
The Almond Board of California, based in Modesto, hosted the demonstration at Jean Okuye’s farm along Olive Avenue. She has 19 of the farm’s roughly 6,000 acres enrolled so far in the Seeds for Bees program.
Almonds are second only to milk for gross income among the state’s farm products. About two-thirds of the nation’s commercial bee colonies are trucked to the Central Valley each year to do the essential task of moving pollen among the blossoms.
Beekeepers expect to lose some of their colonies each winter, but the losses have grown for reasons that are still being studied. They could include disease, parasites, pesticides, the stress from trucking, or poor nutrition when drought reduces flowering plants.
Seeds for Bees this year provided several types of mustard and clover, along with the lana type of vetch. They flower from January, when almond trees are bare, through the end of nut pollination in late March.
The bees gain weight and immunity from disease thanks to the extra food, said Synk, director of pollination programs for Project Apis m. It is named for Apis mellifera, the scientific term for the European honeybee, the species at issue.
The plants add organic matter that improves soil fertility and water retention, Synk said, and they can be mown well in advance of the nut harvest. Almond growers like to minimize the debris that could get picked up with the crop shaken from the trees.
The additional food sources do not appear to keep bees from fully pollinating the trees, said Bob Curtis, director of agricultural affairs at the Almond Board. He added that some beekeepers have discounts for program participants because it reduces the need to feed sugar and other winter supplements to the colonies.
For more information, go to www.projectapism.org.