Almond Pollination Update

Looking for (REAL) Late-Blooming Soft-Shells

by Joe Traynor
Scientific Ag Company

Robust almond prices have caused a surge in new acreage.  Almost all new current plantings are soft-shell varieties due to the price gap between soft and hard-shells — now 50 cents/lb and growing.  The major China and India markets purchase in-shell almonds and either sell them in-shell (often for gifts) or use cheap labor to punch out the kernels – easily done with soft-shells, difficult with hard-shells. Growing hard-shells is still profitable at current prices, but a few years ago, many growers lost money when hard-shells were $1.25/lb.

Hard-shell varieties offer growers some distinct cultural advantages: less worm sprays (the hard shell offers some protection and also makes mummy removal less critical). Hard-shell varieties spread out harvest to make more efficient use of equipment. The later bloom time of most hard-shell varieties — Butte, Padre and Mission bloom about 5 days after Nonpareil – spreads out the risk of rain or frost at a critical time. These advantages have been trumped by high soft-shell prices and as a result, hard-shell acreage has slipped from 20% of total almond acreage 10 years ago, to around 10% today.

A number of growers have lowered bee-rental costs by planting hard and soft-shell blocks adjacent to each other – bees work the soft-shells, and then switch to hard-shells as the soft-shells go out of bloom. Such plantings allow growers to reduce bee requirements by ½ to 1 colony per acre.  Beekeepers also benefit from these combination plantings – their bees collect nutritious almond pollen over a longer period of time, and the bees fare better at the lower stocking rates.

There was a shortage of almond bees in 2013, and things could be worse in 2014, due to the increase in bearing acreage. Commercial beekeepers – those running 600 to 20,000 colonies – feel fortunate if their colony numbers remain stable from one year to the next. Some would love to increase colony numbers to take advantage of current high almond pollination fees, but are unable to do so due to the myriad of well-documented problems facing honey bees; for most beekeepers, it’s a full-time job maintaining current colony numbers.  A major problem facing bees (and beekeepers) is the lack of bee forage when almond bloom is over. Here’s where almond growers and beekeepers can reach common ground and solve both potential bee shortages and a lack of bee forage — a twofer, if you will: extend the almond blooming season by 10 days, by developing and planting soft-shell varieties that bloom 10 days after Nonpareils.

Pollination prices plummet after almond bloom – with 1.5 million colonies of bees exiting almond orchards in mid-March there is intense competition among beekeepers for a limited number of pollination options. As a result, prune growers in the San Joaquin Valley now get bees at no charge (truckload lots) since prunes are a good food source until citrus bloom commences in April. Apple and cherry growers in California also get bees at greatly reduced prices. Prices pick up for cherry and apple pollination in Oregon-Washington, but are still below the break-even point for many beekeepers. Beekeepers from the southern states (and Southern California) are anxious to return home after almond bloom, since there is usually good bee forage and/or pollination contracts for some crops (melons, avocados, blueberries).  Large numbers of almond bees, however, come from the northern plains states, where weather prevents the bees from returning until late April or May.  These beekeepers must invest considerable money feeding their bees until citrus bloom starts and even then, over-crowding of citrus locations combined with the paucity of pollen produced by citrus puts bees in a precarious nutritional state.

Almond pollen is one of the most nutritious of all pollens (unless it contains significant amounts of fungicides or other chemicals). Natural high-protein pollen such as almond pollen is always better than artificial feed mixes and makes healthier bees by boosting their immune systems, making the bees more resistant to pests and diseases. If almond varieties were developed that bloomed in mid to late March, many beekeepers would save considerable money in supplemental feed costs —  costs that are passed on to almond growers in the form of higher rental fees.  Almond pollination fees are subsidizing a major portion of the annual operating costs of commercial beekeepers — beekeepers could not survive without almond pollination income and even with current record rental fees, some are barely hanging on.

Almond varieties that bloom in mid-March have obvious benefits for almond growers, a major one being drastically reduced bee-rental fees for such orchards. It is entirely possible that beekeepers would park truckload lots of bees next to late-blooming orchards at no charge, as some currently do for prune orchards. If, as some predict, almond acreage will pass the million-acre milestone within a few years, there is a real question as to whether U.S. bee colony numbers will keep pace. If a significant percentage of the projected million acres were devoted to late-blooming varieties, the numbers would be doable.

More important than reduced bee-rental fees, adding 10 days to the effective bloom period for almonds could mean the difference between profit and loss for an almond grower. February-March weather is unpredictable in California and often occurs in 6 to 10 day cycles –  a week of stormy weather, followed by a week of sunshine (or vice-versa).  Almond growers have been spoiled in recent years by relatively good pollination weather for all varieties. Ask an old-timer about the 1958 pollination season – the year it never stopped raining, and the average yield was 192 lbs/acre (19.2 million lbs on 100,000 acres). Reduced frost hazard for late-blooming varieties could also be significant in a given year. It would be prudent, if it were possible, not to have all your eggs in one bloom-weather basket especially in our current era of unpredictable weather events. If poor weather during Nonpareil bloom drastically reduced the crop, almond prices would sky-rocket and those with late-blooming trees, especially late-blooming soft-shells, would reap a windfall.

It’s fun to speculate on late-blooming almonds, but the task of developing such varieties – varieties that would require more winter-chilling hours — is formidable.  Some could argue that developing varieties that require more winter-chilling might not be wise if current global-warming theories are correct. Unless such varieties were self-fertile, like Independence, at least two varieties  that bloomed at the same time would be necessary thus making the task more difficult, although, as the saying goes: nothing worth having is easy.  With new techniques in genetic modification, developing suitable varieties may be easier today than it once was. There is, however, no current impetus to develop such varieties since no potential bee-crisis or weather crisis is discernible by growers and, for any problem, a crisis is often necessary before action is taken.  Peach growers in Colorado and Georgia developed late-blooming peach varieties, but only after several years of early frosts wiped out the entire peach crop in susceptible areas.

There is no question that honey bees would benefit from the additional rich forage that late-blooming almonds would provide, but the low pollination fees for such orchards would not pencil out. Beekeepers would love the reduced feeding costs and the healthier bees that late-blooming almonds would provide, but they are content to have current almond rental fees cover supplemental feeding costs. Beekeepers have no incentive to push for late-blooming almonds.

Any action on developing late-blooming soft-shell almond varieties would have to come from the almond industry and there are no indications that any such steps will be taken. The bottom line: never mind.