Blue orchard bees have been tried as supplemental pollinators in almond orchards.
Blue orchard bees have been tried as supplemental pollinators in almond orchards.

This year’s almond bloom in California appears sufficient to mitigate pressures the industry there has faced from declining bee populations.

“We’re in the middle of bloom and conditions are very good,” Bob Curtis, associate director of agricultural affairs for the Modesto-based Almond Board of California, said in late February. “Our prospects for getting the crop pollinated are favorable at this time.”

Harvesting typically starts around Aug. 1 in Kern County, then moves to other growing areas and finishes in October. The state has about 800,000 acres of almond trees. The board represents about 6,000 growers.

“Bee supplies are tighter this year,” Curtis said. “Our standard has been two hives per acre with eight-frame strength. We’ll still have two hives, but it won’t be eight frames or above across the board.”

Eight-frame strength offers insurance against poor bloom conditions, but those have not materialized, he said.

The adequacy of bee populations has been a continuing issue for growers.

“The hive supply for several years has been stable or declining, but this last year was a confluence of a lot of different stressers,” Curtis said. Winter losses rose. Pest control — of varroa mites in hives — has been problematic. And in the upper Midwest, drought and loss of foraging land to corn and ethanol production have affected bees.

The board has put $1.4 million into bee health research in partnership with the beekeeping industry. That’s starting to pay off, Curtis said.

The board has asked growers to plant forage. Growers are also trying out the blue orchard bee — a relative of the leafcutter bee used in alfalfa production — as a supplemental pollinator.

New almond varieties are likely to help.

“The first commercial self-compatible almond varieties are starting to come online,” Curtis said. “It will reduce the number of bees required because all you need is transfer of pollen within the flower.”