Is it a trend? Reflections of a long-time beekeeper
- Is it a trend?
Reflections of a long-time beekeeper
This year's swarm season began early with a humungous swarm in mid-February - six weeks ahead of the norm. Investigation shows that none of my hives could have thrown that swarm. So it must have come from a feral hive.
It was a bushel of bees - just like the old swarms we used to see before three parasites and new diseases created hives that could only seem to build to about half the strength of the old timey hives.
My own hives are roaring strong, as well as several hundred commercial hives I looked at before they left for California's almonds last month. They are beautiful bees! It's thrilling to open a hive in late winter to see wall-to-wall bees, even spilling over the edges of the hives.
Colony Collapse Disorder? No sign of this!
We've been seeing continuous hype about the honey bees dying off; and I've been saying, "Hold off. Our beekeeping industry is dealing with this. While the possibility is scarey, it isn't happening yet.
My own observations are confirmed by reports from California, where the almond industry is now engaged in the largest managed annual pollination event in the world - where a million hives from all over the USA come to that state to ensure one of the country's most nutrition-packed and valuable crops.
An article in the Los Angeles Times tells about Paramount, the world's biggest almond grower, with 47,000 acres under cultivation.
"Almonds are our primary crop and the most critical because they bloom for a short period; it's early in the season and we must have bees to pollinate," said Paramount President Joe Macilvaine.
"Lots of things can reduce almond yield weather conditions, drought, insect infestations," Macilvaine said. "But if you don't have the bees, you never get to begin."
Paramont uses managed bees, both Blue Orchard (solitary) bees and honey bees. "This season, Paramount contracted with 26 beekeepers to bring in 92,000 hives from as far as Maine, Louisiana, Florida and the Carolinas. The rental expense represents 15% of the company's total almond production cost."
And the honey bees are looking very good this year!
"We're looking at the best bees we've seen in five years," Paramount staff entomologist Gordon Wardell said. "The bees are better because the beekeepers are getting better at managing them."
In the past, a mild winter could often be a problem. With more winter bloom, bees put in more flight time, eating up honey reserves. Winter flowers are pollen-rich and nectar-poor.
Toward the end of winter, the bees have often used up all the stored honey, and are living on day-to-day nectar. A spell of cold or wet weather can cause mass starvation. Sadly, it's the most powerful hives that have been vulnerable to this. In just a few days of starvation, a strong hive can become weak or even dead.
Beekeepers have become much better guardians against starvation - and indeed are much more aware of all the nutrional needs of the bees. The commercial bees I looked at have been well fed with both carbohydrates and pollen/protein since mid-winter.
But there is another side to the story.
Many times in my career, I've seen bees that looked beautiful - in the spring. A mild winter's pollen-rich flowers help them clear out all the old contaminated pollens.
But then I've watched them dwindle and turn poor as the pesticide season comes into swing. When the spraying begins - the bees start taking hits. Sometimes this is noticeable, sometimes colonies are even killed. But most of the damage is seen in weak hives that are simply struggling to survive.
So, while I rejoice at the great start to the season, I'll be watching to see if this is a trend, or the same old story I've seen so many times.
We all need to be watching. When this is seen in managed bees, what is going on with wild bees that are not being observed?
Retired pollination contractor
Story referenced: Hives for Hire:
FAO-IIED Press release
5-step guide to help farmers evaluate agriculture’s hidden heroes
Smallholder farmers will soon be better able to weigh up the cost and benefits of adopting new practices that support some of the most overlooked contributors to global food security — the insects and other animals that pollinate their crops and boost yields.
“Three quarters of all food crops need insect pollinators such as bees to get good yields, and 35% of all food production globally comes from crops dependent on pollinators — but there are worrying reports of declines in pollinators from several regions of the world,” says Barbara Gemmill-Herren of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Now, Maryanne Grieg-Gran of the International Institute for Environment and Development and Gemmill-Herren have co-authored a handbook that smallholder farmers and organizations that work with them can use to identify such pollinator-friendly practices and evaluate their impacts on livelihoods, incomes and health.
“Sharing information with farmers about pollinator-friendly practices is a good first step,” says Grieg-Gran. “But farmers will adopt pollinator-friendly practices only if they can see that these practices will bring benefits to them – and while cash always helps, other less tangible benefits may also be important.”
There are striking examples of farmers managing for pollination services - in Ghana, a mango farmer realized some of the common weeds growing under his trees attracted pollinators into the orchard. To conserve those pollinator species, the farmer chose to hand-weed rather than use herbicide even though weeding was four times more expensive. In Southern India, farmers who grow coffee and cardamom have chosen to plant selections of shade trees that flower at different times from the crops to ensure continuous forage for the pollinators. But farmers are often not aware of how best to manage their farms to make the most of this natural service.
The handbook, which will be published on 8 March by FAO, draws on work with farmers in Ghana, India, Kenya and Nepal.
To improve pollination of their horticultural crops, farmers in the Mankessim area of Ghana chose to try out reducing pesticide use, protect riverside vegetation and sacred groves that provide habitat for pollinators and allow flowering plants to grow along field borders.
In Uttarakhand State, in India, farmers who plant grasses to prevent soil erosion at the edges of their fields could instead use plants that also attract pollinators.
The handbook provides a five-step approach, centred in the farmer field school tradition, for smallholders to assess current production systems, identifying and testing new practices, and evaluating their impacts. It will enable farmers to weigh up the costs and benefits of adopting different approaches to farming.
“Wild pollinators are some of the most important contributors to global food security, but farmers often overlook them,” says Maryanne Grieg-Gran of IIED. “Farmers need to be directly involved in testing practices that encourage pollinators to visit their crops so that they can assess the benefits and costs for themselves.”
Barbara Gemmill-Herren of FAO adds: “As agriculture intensifies with large-scale monocultures and greater use of agricultural chemicals, pollinators are increasingly threatened. There is a critical need to develop agricultural practices that sustain and increase yields, based on the ecosystem services such as pollination provided by wild species.”
The publication has been produced under the Global Pollination Project, a Global Environment Facility-supported project, implemented by United Nations Environment Programme and executed by the Food and Agriculture Organization, with seven national partners. The production of the handbook was facilitated by funding from the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
To download the book as a PDF visit http://www.internationalpollinatorsinitiative.org/documents.do
Contacts for interviews
International Institute for Environment and Development
Maryanne@... / +44 (0)2034637399
Focal Point, International Pollinator Initiative
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Barbara.Herren@... / +39 0657056838