Stretching Out Almond Bloom

Joe Traynor
November 11, 2013

An extended bloom could be a boon to both almond growers and beekeepers.

With bearing almond acreage at 810,000 and another 80,000 planted acres to come on line within 2 years, many are predicting a million acres of almonds by 2020. Most of this new acreage will be soft-shell varieties – Nonpareil and varieties that bloom with Nonpareil — due to the roughly 50 cent/lb lower market price for hard-shells. Because the expanding markets in China and India greatly prefer soft-shells, hard-shell acreage has slipped from 20% of total acreage 10 years ago to 10% and falling today. Hard-shells do provide growers advantages: lower worm-control costs and, because hard-shells bloom about 5 days later than Nonpareils, growers with both varieties get maximum work out of the bees they rent, allowing them to reduce per-acre bee numbers.

Although it hasn’t been a factor in recent years, the extra 5 days of almond bloom provided by hard-shells, spreads out the risk of damaging rain or frost at a critical time. Almond growers have been spoiled in recent years by relatively good bloom weather for all varieties. Ask an old-timer about the 1958 pollination season – the year it never stopped raining and the average yield was a paltry 192 lbs/acre (19.2 million lbs on 100,000 acres). Compressing almond bloom down to 7 days by eliminating hard-shell plantings puts growers (and almond marketers) at great risk for a devastating loss should a crop failure occur due to February weather. February-March weather is unpredictable in California, and usually occurs in 6 to 10 day cycles – a week of stormy weather, followed by a week of sunshine (or vice-versa). Developing varieties that bloomed in March, about 10 days after Nonpareil, would minimize the risk of having all your eggs (nuts) in one bloom-weather basket. Should adverse bloom weather deplete the crop on early-blooming varieties followed by a good weather window for late-bloomers, nut prices would sky rocket.

Late-blooming varieties would also be the solution to an impending shortage of bees if (when) almond acreage reaches the million acre milestone. Bee numbers in the U.S. are static and even decreasing due to the myriad of well documented problems facing bees. Beekeepers today feel fortunate if they can maintain current colony numbers, let alone increase their numbers. The spot shortages of bees that occurred in 2013 will likely be more severe in coming years with a concurrent increase in bee-rental fees. If bees could be transferred from early-blooming orchards to late-bloomers, there would be no shortage of bees and bee rental prices would stabilize. With over 1.5 million colonies of bees exiting almond orchards in March, pollination prices for other crops plummet. Growers with March-blooming almonds would get bees at greatly reduced prices, possibly even free.

Roughly a third of the 1.5 million colonies of bees that leave almond orchards in March, return to southern states and southern California where there is usually good bee forage and/or pollination contracts for crops such as melons, blueberries and avocados. Another third head for the Pacific Northwest where spring flowers start blooming and where bees can be rented to cherry and apple growers (although at prices that are not profitable for many beekeepers). The remaining roughly 500,000 bee colonies stay in almond areas in the San Joaquin Valley — about half of these colonies belong to California beekeepers and half to beekeepers from the northern plains states, where weather prevents the bees from returning until April or May. After almonds, the next significant bee forage in the San Joaquin Valley doesn’t occur until April, when citrus bloom commences.

The dearth of bee forage between the end of almond bloom and the start of citrus bloom puts tremendous stress on the populous colonies exiting almond orchards – there are simply too many mouths to feed when bee colonies go from feast to famine. Some colonies compensate by cannibalizing their brood. To prevent this, beekeepers will embark on an expensive feeding program or will take any pollination price they can get and even place bees at no charge for limited apple and prune pollination. Once citrus starts blooming, colonies rebound somewhat, however the paucity of pollen produced by citrus combined with the over-stocking of citrus locations leaves bees in a precarious nutritional state when citrus bloom ends.

Here is where the interests of almond growers and beekeepers converge. For growers, late-blooming almonds spread the risk of loss due to adverse weather during bloom and also make it easier to obtain bees from a static or diminishing pool of bees. For beekeepers, late-blooming almonds provide a rich food source during a critical time of year — almond pollen is one of the most nutritious of all pollens. Beekeepers can rent all their bees to early-blooming almond orchards then transfer them to late-bloomers. The low pollination fees for these late-bloomers are offset by the natural food they would provide at a critical time.

Developing late-blooming almonds that would require more winter-chilling hours is a formidable task although new techniques in genetic modification could make it easier. Unless a self-fertile late-bloomer was developed, two late-blooming, compatible varieties would be needed, thus compounding the problem. Late-blooming soft-shells would be preferable to hard-shells but would likely require additional worm sprays. Some could argue that developing varieties that require more winter chilling would not be worth it if current global warming theories are correct. Such varieties would be useful though if, as some predict, almond culture will shift to Canada later this century.

Often a crisis is required in order to take the necessary action to solve a particular problem. Peach breeders in Colorado and Georgia developed late-blooming peaches but only after several years of early frosts wiped out the entire crop in susceptible areas. A bee supply crisis in coming years is possible, but is not in focus at this time. Similarly, in our current era of unusual weather events, a catastrophic weather event during almond bloom is certainly possible (see 1958) but not discernible. The potential benefits of late-blooming almond varieties are great, for both growers and beekeepers, but developing such varieties will be difficult. As the saying goes though: nothing worth having is easy.

This article appeared in the December 2013 issue of Pacific Nut Producer and in the January 2014 issue of the American Bee Journal