As the world’s largest pollination event, the California almond bloom, comes to a close, beekeepers everywhere are asking themselves one question: Where do I take my bees now? As spring turns to summer here in California the foraging opportunities become more scarce. Surely there are pollination-for-hire jobs that beekeepers can try to fill. But the number of these contracts is limited and can’t support our nation’s 2.5 million colonies. Even if it were easy to find, the nutrition provided by some of these crops is of poor quality (e.g., blueberry 13%-14% protein). Historically, middle America has served as a summer vacation spot for many hives. Bees that have worked hard pollinating almonds get shipped to America’s heartland to get fat and happy. In fact, 75% of the nation’s honey bee colonies are found in just 8 states in the summer.
Places like North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, Nebraska and Missouri used to have far more bee supportive flowers than they do now. Bees are under enough stress as it is. Year round, they are getting fed on by varroa mites that transfer disease. Interestingly, research indicates access to diverse, nutritious forage actually helps bees’ natural immune systems and has a direct impact on pollinator health (Alaux et al. 2010). This is why it’s alarming when vast amounts of forage in the upper Midwest and great plains regions disappear. From 2008-2011 alone, 23 million acres of grasslands have been destroyed and converted into cropland. This means there is now less land to support bee health, honey production, monarch butterflies, songbirds, pheasants, quail and wildlife, in general. The need for more forage is urgent!
Forage planted anywhere that is accessible to honey bees is a good thing. However, Project Apis m. is committed to using our donors’ support for forage programs in the most efficient way possible. We accomplish this in two ways. One, we target bee hives when they are at their weakest–early spring right before the almond bloom. The Seeds for Bees program has put more than 3,000 acres of cover crops into orchards this growing season. And secondly, we focus on replacing forage that has been lost in middle America.
The Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund has already planted NextGen habitat plots on 124 farms in North and South Dakota. A bee hive that’s lucky enough to be in an almond orchard with a Seeds for Bees cover crop or near a NextGen forage plot in the Dakotas is getting a 5-7 month nutrition boost solely from Project Apis m.’s efforts! Seed is expensive. Funding can be hard to come by. Urban sprawl and increased agricultural production are making habitat and forage less common. By providing cost effective seed mixtures to growers in California and landowners in middle America, Project Apis m. is attacking forage issues head on.
If you learn one thing from this blog, it should be this: Forage supports bees and their health for a period of time that stretches far beyond the day they collected that pollen or nectar. What bees did or did not have access to during the summer has a direct effect on their survival and performance for the next season. It was eye opening for me to learn the abundance and diversity of forage in North Dakota during the summer has a major impact on almond pollination in California. Did you realize this? Those of us that toil in mud, rain, and scorching heat realize it every day. Those of us looking at honey bee health on a small and large scale get it. The title of Dr. DeGrandi Hoffman’s 2015 paper says it all, “Honey bee colonies provided with natural forage have lower pathogen loads and higher overwinter survival than those fed protein supplements” (DeGrandi-Hoffman, et al. 2016). When a beekeeper checks a colony in late fall, and it doesn’t have adequate pollen and honey stores, they know they must work much harder to get that hive strong come almond bloom. If they don’t, their livelihood and the almond crop will both suffer. Almonds contribute more than $11 billion dollars to the California state economy, so this is a problem that affects not only our bees, but our wallets and also our pantry.
Alaux, C. et al. 2010 Diet effects on honeybee immunocompetence Biol. Lett. (2010) 6, 562–565
DeGrandi-Hoffman, G., Chen, Y., Rivera, R. et al. Apidologie (2016) 47: 186. doi:10.1007/s13592-015-0386-6