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READ: Commercial bees, the unsung heroes of the nut business

[HoneyLover] Bill Lewis is waiting for the sun to set, the time of day when his bees crawl back inside the short white boxes that house their colonies. As the sky turns pink behind the San Gabriel mountains, on the outskirts of Los Angeles, Lewis climbs into the seat of a forklift and starts moving the hives onto the back of a flatbed truck. These bees are on the move. “As soon as you get on the freeway and there’s air flowing past the entrances, all the bees run back inside,” says Lewis, of any stragglers. Lewis, who runs Bill’s Bees, is taking about 700 of his hives on a road trip to the California’s Central Valley, where he’ll unload them across acres of almond orchards, working until 1 or 2 a.m. under the light of full moon. All across the country, more than a million-and-a-half colonies are making a similar journey – traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles to pollinate California’s almonds. Farmers rent hives for few weeks because in order for almond trees to produce nuts, bees need to move pollen from one tree to another. No bees, no almonds. “This pollination season there will be [some] 800,000 acres of almonds that need to be pollinated,” says Eric Mussen, a honey bee specialist at the University of California Davis. He says more than 100 different kinds of crops need these rent-a-bees, but almonds are significant for the number of acres that require pollination all at the same time. About 85 percent of the commercial bees in United States – which Mussen calls “bees on wheels” – travel to California for almonds. The state supplies roughly 80 percent of the world’s almonds, worth $6.4 billion during the 2013-2014 season, according to the Almond Board of California. “It’s a matter of numbers,” he says. “You’re trying to provide enough bees to be moving the pollen around between the varieties and whatnot. It’s just a huge, huge number of bees. The only way we can get a huge number of bees in one place at one time is to bring them in on trucks.” In fact, bees are such an important part of the almond business that Paramount Farms, one of the biggest almond growers in the world, has decided they need to be in the bee business, too. The company just bought one of the largest beekeepers in the United States, based in Florida. “Bees are so essential for the process of growing almonds,” says Joe Joe MacIlvane, Paramount’s president. “If we don’t have a reliable supply of good strong colonies, we simply won’t be a viable almond grower, so that’s our primary motivation for getting into the business.” Renting bees is about 10 to 15 percent of Paramount’s production costs, but the motivation to keep their own bees isn’t simply economic. “Many bee keepers are individual or family business and many people are getting on in years and we don’t see a lot of young people coming into the business,” says MacIlvane. Additionally, bee populations are struggling. A significant number having been dying each year for the past decade or so, thanks to a mix of factors, from pesticides to lost habitat for feeding. Sometimes it’s difficult to know exactly what’s killing them. “We had a large problem last year with bees dying in the orchard because of something that was going on during bloom,” says Bill Lewis. He thinks a pesticide or fungicide may have been to blame. This year, Lewis and his bee broker are being pickier about the farms they’re working with, vetting them more carefully because those lost bees had big economic consequences – about $300,000 in lost income for Lewis.
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Almond growers plant wildflowers to help bees


Almonds are among the top-grossing farm products in the Northern San Joaquin Valley and statewide, and the largest users of commercial colonies in the nation each year. About 1.7 million bee boxes are delivered to the orchards for the pollination, which runs from mid-February to mid-March.

Beekeepers expect to lose some of their colonies each winter, but many have had much larger losses in recent years. Researchers say the causes could include diseases, parasites, trucking stress, pesticides or poor nutrition where drought has reduced flowering plants. Even when rain is abundant, winter does not provide much food.

“Those are times of dearth for bees, when there isn’t much for them to eat,” said Heintz, who works out of Tucson, Ariz., and previously was with the Almond Board of California, based in Modesto.

Heintz talked about the effort during a visit Wednesday to Silveira’s orchard, on 40 hilly acres along Twenty-Six Mile Road. The seeds he sowed came free from Project Apis m., which operates on about $100,000 in grants each year. The mix includes a few varieties of mustard, which put out yellow flowers before the almond bloom, and clover, which bear red, white or purple flowers afterward.

Heintz said the diverse food in the orchard, combined with nearby drinking water, “is exactly what we need. This is a bee spa.”

Almond blooms still are the favored food for the bees, she added, and they will not fill up on the supplemental plantings at the expense of pollinating the crop.

The effort so far covers only about 3,000 of the 860,000 acres of almonds in California, but Heintz said she would like to see it become a common practice. She is collecting data on how the supplemental food sources affect nutrition, colony population and other factors.

Silveira has taken part for two years. He said some almond growers might worry about these plants taking soil moisture from the trees, but that has not been a problem. He also noted that the mustard and clover protect the ground from erosion and take up nitrate from fertilizer, reducing the risk of tainted groundwater.

Silveira plans to mow the plants when the flowering in done, so they will decompose well in advance of the almond harvest. The nuts are shaken to the ground by machines, and growers do not like to have too much debris lying there.

Silveira rented the colonies from Hughson-area beekeeper Kevin Peavey, who is taking part in the effort for the first time this year.

“The bees are going to have more pollen and nectar to gather,” Peavey said. “The more they are fed, the stronger they are.”

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at or (209) 578-2385.


$18 billion: Estimated worth of U.S. crops pollinated by honeybees and other creatures each year. About a third of that is in California, including almonds, cherries, apples, apricots, plums, kiwis, avocados, alfalfa seed, onions, broccoli, cucumbers, melons and squash.

$2.3 billion: Estimated gross income to almond growers in the Northern San Joaquin Valley in 2013.

1.7 million: Number of commercial honeybee colonies rented to California almond growers each year, two-thirds of the U.S. supply.

Sources: American Beekeeping Federation, county crop reports


Project Apis m. has free seed for almond growers hoping to supplement the food available to pollinating honeybees. Send an email to Other interested people can learn about the effort at

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READ: How neglecting bees could endanger humans

Bees pollinate much of our food supply, but a pesticide threatens their survival

(Credit: StudioSmart via Shutterstock)

(Credit: StudioSmart via Shutterstock)

If you are an almond farmer in the Central Valley of California, where 80 percent of the world’s production is grown, you had a problem earlier this spring. Chances are there weren’t enough bees to pollinate your trees. That’s because untold thousands of colonies — almost half of the 1.6 million commercial hives that almond growers depend on — failed to survive the winter, making this the worst season for beekeepers in anyone’s memory. And that is saying a lot, because bees have been faring increasingly poorly for years now.

Much of this recent spike in bee mortality is attributed to Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious condition where all the worker bees in a colony simply fly off as a group and never make it back to the hive. Scientists have been studying this odd phenomenon for years and they still aren’t sure why it is happening.

But a slew of recent studies have pointed an accusing finger at a class of pesticides, the ubiquitous neonicotonoids (neonics for short), which include imidacloprid and clothianidin, manufactured by Germany’s agro-giant Bayer, and thiamethoxam, made by Syngenta. The neonics, the world’s leading insecticides, are applied on a whopping 75 percent of the farmlands in America, according to Charles Benbrook, research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. Neonics are a so-called systemic pesticide. That means that they are taken up by the plant’s vascular system and get impregnated into all parts of the plant that an insect encounters, including the leaves, seeds, nectar and pollen. Corn and soybean seeds are typically coated with the pesticide before planting. Fruit trees and many vegetables are sprayed.

Few researchers believe that the neonics alone are to blame for the bees’ troubles, which appear to result from a perfect storm of contributing environmental factors. Pollinators have been called the canaries in the coal mine for ecosystem health. The declining numbers of both wild species and domesticated bee colonies worldwide is regarded as a troubling barometer of the state of the environment, reflecting habitat loss, the spread of agricultural monocultures, infestation by viral pathogens and bee parasites like the Varroa mite, climate change and even electromagnetic radiation, which seems to interfere with bees’ homing ability.

But the neonics, which contains a chemical related to nicotine that attacks an insect’s nervous system, have been demonstrated to kill bees — and especially the queens — when applied in high enough doses. And a growing body of research suggests that at sub-lethal concentrations, these agro-chemicals mess with their navigation, foraging and communication abilities, throw off their reproductive patterns, and weaken bee immune systems, making them susceptible to sudden colony collapse.

One study published by scientists at Purdue University in 2012 showed high levels of clothianidin and thiamethoxam in bees found dead near agricultural fields. Other bees at the hives were observed exhibiting uncoordinated movement, tremors and convulsions, all signs of insecticide poisoning.

In yet another study conducted by scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health, which I reported on in Reuters last April, researchers actually re-created colony collapse disorder in several honeybee hives simply by administering small doses of a popular neonic, imidacloprid.

These and other recent studies led the European Union to call on Monday for a provisional ban on neonics for two years to see what impact this has on Europe’s endangered bees. The use of the pesticides had already been temporarily suspended in Germany, France and Italy.

The vote in Brussels was split (15 of the 27 EU countries voted for the ban). The British Newspaper the Observer said that there was “a fierce behind the scenes” campaign to prevent the ban. The paper reported that agricultural multinational Syngenta, facing what it called “serious damage to the integrity of our product and reputation,” threatened to sue individual European Union officials involved in publishing the damning report about the dangers of neonics. The U.K. voted against the ban, alleging that the science is inconclusive and that barring the pesticides would be hugely expensive and potentially cripple food production.

But the ban had lots of public support, including a petition signed by over 2.5 million Europeans. And it was universally applauded by environmentalists, who have been fighting for it for years. Andrew Pendleton of the U.K division of Friends of the Earth said: “This decision is a significant victory for common sense and our beleaguered bee populations. Restricting the use of these pesticides could be an historic milestone on the road to recovery for these crucial pollinators.”

Pressure has been building in the U.S. to restrict the neonics. A coalition of beekeepers and environmental groups filed suit in March against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its failure to ban the pesticides, saying that the agency didn’t consider the impact of the pesticides on vital pollinators. The American Bird Conservancy published in March a review of 200 studies on neonics, including industry research obtained through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, which concluded that the neonics are lethal to birds and other wildlife and to the aquatic systems on which they depend.

These threats to wildlife are significant, but the world’s attention is rightly focused on bees, which are responsible for pollinating nearly a third of our food supply. These industrious insects are in serious trouble. And if their decline continues unchecked, we humans may soon be in trouble too.

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What’s up w/ URBAN HOMESTEADING in LA? Join Laurie Kaufman & Barbara Osborne to learn about urban bees, backyard chickens and more with Erik Knutzen ( & Rob McFarland (


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WATCH: “Killing Bees — Are Government And Industry Responsible?”


Earth Focus Episode 44 via Link TV

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Breakfast without Bees?

“Without honeybees, many foods included in the breakfast [on top] would become too rare for most people to afford. Shortages would affect an array of fruits, as well as jams and jellies, almonds and even milk, because dairies use alfalfa (which needs pollinators) as a protein-rich feed for dairy cows.” –

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