Honeybees, Colony Strength, and Beekeeper Challenges


Always be aware of honey bees when they’re in your orchard to pollinate your crop. After all, you’re paying good money for the bees to do a critical job! You can go a long way toward protecting the health of honey bee colonies by avoiding contamination of pollen and pollen foragers and by avoiding products with potential toxicity to honey bees or their larvae while bees are in your orchard. This is good husbandry and it’s in the interest of both the grower and the beekeeper.

Lack of blooming pasture while bees wait for almonds to bloom can weaken colonies. Although it’s too late to plant a honey bee forage mix that will bloom before almonds this year, if you have an open field, new orchard, ditch banks, field margins, or a neighboring prune or walnut orchard where a winter cover would be beneficial, you might consider planting an early blooming forage mix containing mustard next fall. When planted in late summer or early next fall it may provide flowers ahead of almond bloom in 2018 that can help with honey bee nutrition. Some cover crop seed providers have mixes particularly geared towards almond bloom timing.

What’s a good colony? For almond pollination purposes a good colony is one that has an active brood nest with uncapped worker brood at the start of almond bloom. Bees feed pollen to developing larvae so open brood cells indicate the hive has a demand for pollen. When pollen is in demand in the hive, more pollen foragers are sent into the field to collect pollen (inadvertently cross-pollinating your almonds).

How much colony strength is needed? Strong colonies with 6 to 12 frames of bees should be sought. Under adverse weather conditions a 4-frame colony will not field enough workers to do the pollination job required. In a 1970 study on colony size and pollen collection, the 8-frame colony did three times as much pollination work as the 4-frame colony. Beyond about 12 frames of bees, increased colony size does not seem to increase foraging.

How can colony strength be checked? Dr. Robin Thorp at UC Davis developed a method that is reasonably accurate and is the least disruptive method so far to check colony strength. Dr. Thorp used cluster size observations to make a rapid honey bee colony strength evaluation. Five years of work comparing cluster observations with intensive frame by frame counts led to this quick evaluation system. A free online training course is available to teach you how to evaluate colony strength.

How many colonies per acre? Our current recommendation is to have between 2 and 3 hives per acre. In orchards studied by researchers at UC Davis, when the weather was poor, orchards having 3 hives per acre had significantly better nut set (24% of blooms) than orchards having only 1.7 hives per acre (14.8% of blooms). On the other hand, when weather was favorable for bee flight, both orchards had the same percentage set. In orchards with a self-fertile variety there is speculation that fewer colonies will be needed to set an acceptable crop. Some have suggested that 1 hive per acre should be sufficient although I have seen no research data supporting the number of colonies needed for optimum production in self-fertile orchards.

Honeybees enter and exit a bee box.

Honeybees enter and exit a bee box located at the West Side Research and Extension Center (WSREC) in Five Points, California.

Like California almond growers, California beekeepers are among the best. California bee breeding is centered in the counties of Butte, Glenn, Tehama Shasta, Colusa, Yuba, Sutter, Yolo, and Solano. Honey bees overwinter well in California’s favorable climate and beekeepers can build up hives in early spring when almonds bloom. Roughly 16 queen breeders produce and ship queen bees to beekeepers nationwide. The Sacramento Valley is responsible for approximately one-half of the nation’s honey bee industry.

The Bee Informed Partnership’s Bee Team of trained crop protection agents hosted at Butte County’s UCCE office help these beekeepers monitor and improve their honey bee colonies hygienic behavioral trait that correlates with disease resistance. They identify pest presence, pathogen loads, and the optimum treatment timing to alleviate pest and disease problems to enhance colony strength and reduce colony losses.

The most severe pest problems afflicting the honey bee are Varroa parasitic mites and the Nosema gut fungus disease. These problems along with increasing almond acreage have increased concerns about the quality and availability of bees for almond pollination. Beekeepers treat for Varroa parasitic mites but re-infestation by bees drifting from other untreated colonies or from colonies with poorly timed treatments increases the number of treatments needed. This contributes to the development of resistance and to the loss of effective treatment materials. Foulbrood, a bacterial disease, can be treated and controlled with antibiotics but beekeepers need a recommendation and a prescription from a Veterinarian to be able to purchase antibiotics from a supplier.

What’s a beekeeper’s responsibility? California Food and Agriculture Code require that all beekeepers, apiary owners, apiary operators or any person in possession of any apiary must register their apiary with the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office annually. To help reduce theft, an Apiary Brand Number can be registered with the California Department of Food and Agriculture and used on all equipment.

California Code of Regulations Section 6655 designates the procedures to help protect bees from pesticide applications. In Glenn, Butte & Tehama Counties, the Tri County Bee Notification service (530-934-6666) can be used to notify beekeepers and apiary owners of potential pesticide applications near hives. In the remaining Sacramento Valley counties, beekeepers who desire advance notifications of applications should contact their Agricultural Commissioner office. You can help ensure the safety of bees by properly notifying your Agricultural Commissioner 48-hours prior to pesticide applications so that beekeepers can be notified and take protective action if necessary.

Are you and your beekeeper doing all you can to strengthen and protect bees? Plan ahead to make sure you have bees for pollination. You and your beekeeper should settle on a written contract so both parties know what is expected. For the best bee health and successful crop pollination it’s important that all beekeepers and almond growers talk to one another and work together for everyone’s benefit.


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