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Climate and Environment

Bees Are Under Pressure, Which Could Mean Trouble For California's Almond Crop

A bee perches on the end of a purple petal.
A bee collects pollen from flowers in Los Angeles last June.
(Chris Delmas
AFP via Getty Images)
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California’s epically wet winter, which brought wildflowers into full bloom and Tulare Lake back into existence, is having another yet another effect that you might not have thought about. Even as the rains have slowed, the bees we depend on for our food have been slow to emerge from their hives.

Typically, bees are rotated through various states to pollinate the crops that feed the country. The bees often start working on the almond crop early in the year in California, and later they might be transported to Oregon to pollinate cherries or to the Midwest to produce honey. But this year, the weather is just one of the obstacles to bees’ wellbeing and productivity.

A close-up shot of a single honeybee next to a purple flower.
A honeybee flies next to a lamb's ear plant last May in San Anselmo, California. The state has experienced steep losses in the bee population, which is critical for agriculture.
(Justin Sullivan
Getty Images)

Boris Baer, a professor of entomology at UC Riverside, joined LAist's public affairs show "AirTalk" and host Larry Mantle to discuss some of the pressures these industrious insects are under this year. In January, Baer says, bees around his campus were flying out and getting to work, pollinating some stone fruits and producing queen bees.

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But later that month, a deluge began. UCR’s campus even saw snowfall, Baer says, which is highly unusual.

“The bees didn't like that at all,” Baer says. “Our bees really suffered and we lost a significant amount of hives.”

Beekeepers went into the hives to feed the bees, since it was too stormy for bees to go out and feed themselves. They tried to replace the hives that had fallen, Baer says, but these efforts have not been sufficient to combat the recent challenges.

The weather isn’t the only challenge, Baer says. Urbanization of landscapes and environmental changes are cutting into bees’ habitats. Parasites, pathogens and allergies are making bees sick and they’re coming into contact with large amounts of pesticides when they’re out pollinating.

Though these pesticides are sub-lethal, they have significant effects.

“[The bees] cannot communicate, they cannot navigate like normal and that has a major effect on the hives,” Baer says. “Especially if you combine them with a disease or with bad weather, or they're hungry.”

Brock Ashurst, an apiarist in El Centro, says it has been a stressful couple of months for him and his bees. His apiary’s queen bees are produced mainly in Northern California, which he estimates is 21-22 days behind the transport cycle. The almond transport cycle is about three weeks, he says.

“These bees are very tolerant. But if they are continuously exposed to stressful situations, it’s eventually just too much fight and then they start to collapse.”
— Boris Baer, entomology professor at UC Riverside

All of these challenges mean there’s a lot of uncertainty about what this year’s almond crop will look like, says Josette Lewis, chief scientific officer for the Almond Board of California.

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“The expectation is that it will likely be lower than last year as a result of the poor weather conditions during almond pollination,” Lewis says. “Those weather conditions affected, in particular, the bees’ ability to be out doing their natural job of pollinating almond trees, and also affected the physiology of the almond blossom so as to provide pollen to the honey bees and to develop the flower as well.”

Still, there’s reason for optimism. Lewis says though it will probably be a tough year for almond growers, the difficulties in pollination won’t affect future crops — the pollination is a year-to-year event. And the show-stopping superbloom, in addition to being a wondrous sight, is also great news for bees, Ashurst says.

“Bees need a multitude of different kinds of pollens, like we need different kinds of food,” Ashurst says. “So when there's the wildflowers blooming right now, it’s a beekeeper’s dream.”

Listen to the conversation

Bees Ecosystem 4.17.2023
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