With rising almond acreages in California the need for bees to pollinate that crop increases. One almond growing operation is trying to address this in a unique way.
The Wonderful Company (formerly Paramount Farms) is a large farming operation with about 46,000 acres of almonds. It is looking at options that could reduce the need for honey bees while adding native bees to the mix.
Gordon Wardell, bee expert and director of pollination operations with The Wonderful Company is studying Blue Orchard Bees, Osmia lignaria, to see if the tiny insect can aid in almond pollination.
“We’re looking to see if there’s another bee we can use for pollination, and this shows promise,” Wardell said.
Concern over declining honey bee populations in the United States has sparked interest in Blue Orchard Bees (BOB) as another source of pollination in a host of crops, including almonds.
The company's almond operations require 92,000 honey bee colonies at the industry-standard rate of two colonies per acre. For California that demand soars to over 1.7 million bee colonies and each year that number rises as more almonds are planted and more trees come into production.
According to Wardell, the company's interest in using BOB to pollinate crops is not aimed at replacing honey bee colonies used to pollinate almonds; that is not possible. Rather, BOB’s could be used in tandem with honey bee colonies to test if pollination rates can improve overall yield per acre by adding about 400 female Osmia lignaria per acre to two honey bee colonies.
Wardell has two questions related to this: Can two honey bee colonies be supplemented with 400 BOB for a greater pollination rate and nut yield; and, is this economically feasible?
Still, Wardell thinks it could be possible to pollinate almonds with fewer than the industry-standard. He believes that a single honey bee colony plus 400 BOB could do the trick.
Early indications suggest the company is optimistic about Wardell’s idea. Within the past year the company dedicated 20 acres of land to study and rear BOB with the goal of putting them to commercial use in their San Joaquin Valley almond orchards.
“This is not just a research project,” Wardell says. “We’re looking at the economics of this.”
Wardell works from a lab nestled among pistachio orchards near Lost Hills, Calif. His facilities include a shop building with cold storage to house incubating BOB populations and about 20 acres of wildflowers that are covered by netting to keep BOB populations in and other insects out.
It’s those wildflowers – Phacelia tanacetifolia, Phacelia ciliate, Collinsia, California Five Spot, California poppy and Black mustard – that provide the forage for nesting BOB.
Blue Orchard Bees are native to the United States, according to Wardell. Unlike honey bees, which live in colonies, Osmia lignaria are solitary, though Wardell says they do like to nest in close proximity to each other.
When building a nest, female BOB seek an existing cavity such as a hollow plant stem or a hole left behind by a wood boring beetle, to construct her nest in a linear series of cells. It’s in those cells that she lays her eggs,
This is one of the benefits of BOB. They do not require a queen bee to lay eggs; each female BOB is fertile. Conversely, honey bee colonies have only one fertile female while the rest of the bees work to support her.
Another benefit of Osmia lignaria over honey bees is they are all pollen gatherers, whereas in a honey bee colony, some bees gather pollen, some gather nectar, some stay behind to perform various in-hive duties and some are used to gather water to cool the colony.
When it comes to pollinating plants, Wardell says honey bees and BOB working in tandem compete in a friendly sort of way, meaning each seems to work a little more effectively to pollinate plants.
“We don’t know why Blue Orchard Bees are so effective at pollination, they just are,” Wardell said.
The Wonderful Company gets its Osmia lignaria from Utah. According to Wardell, only a sliver of these bees tend to work in almonds because of their innate propensity to disperse for survival reasons. While some prefer to work in other plants, some will remain with almonds.
“The guys who did the early work on these bees suggest about half of them want to disperse,” Wardell said.
Wardell is looking to breed Osmia lignaria for traits that keep them close to almonds.
“If you keep breeding from that population you increase the chances they stay,” he says.
So far Wardell says he’s seeing positive results from his work with BOB in the cages.
Wardell is considering several different lodging configurations with his BOB populations in the containment cages. From that he hopes to determine what will work effectively in almond orchards.
These breeding and lodging containers vary in size and in the number of incubation tubes they contain. Each incubation tube will hold several BOB eggs.
These housing configurations will be used to determine the nesting practices of Osmia lignaria. For instance, do they tend to be more solitary and prefer nests as set up on individual poles in the research cages, or are they more gregarious and prefer nesting boxes that are closer to each other and contain more individual incubation tubes?
Wardell is still determining this.
As with many farming operations, Wardell is working through a variety of challenges, but suggests he is making progress.
Last year one of those challenges was a fungal issue that killed off some of his flowers. Weeds were also a problem in his rearing cages.
As a result, Wardell solarized the soil, used plastic tarp and drip lines and replanted.
“We first had to learn how to grow our own flowers,” Wardell said. “Now that we have that figured out we’re focused on growing bees.”
Another issue has been pests. Mice can get into the incubation tubes and eat the BOB larvae. Toads discovered the adult BOB delicacies that were burrowing holes in mud caused by the drip lines and would sit next to the burrows and feed on the BOB as they exited the burrows.
“So we spent some time relocating toads,” Wardell said.