Almonds are the No. 1 agricultural crop in Stanislaus County, with a total value of about $1.1 billion, according to the most recent county Ag Report. That’s nearly a third of the county’s entire ag production. Meanwhile, California as a whole provides about 80 percent of the world’s almond supply, according to the Almond Board of California.
In short, almonds are vitally important to the economic health of California and this county.
And that makes the bees that pollinate almond trees each year the Golden State’s most important insect.
But like most Californians, bees don’t dig the cold. And while the colder-than-usual and wetter-than-usual winter has been a boon for our drought-afflicted state, it comes at the worst possible time for almond growers.
The low temperatures, coupled with wet and windy conditions of late, inhibit the bees from pollinating almond blossoms. And that’s bad news for growers, who work within a limited time frame once those beautiful white and pink blossoms begin to appear.
“Perfect weather for bees is about 70 degrees,” said Turlock City Council member Rebecka Monez, who, in addition to being an attorney, is a UC Davis-certified beekeeper. “Wind and rain will also keep them in the hive. They’ll send out little detective bees to make a cleansing flight to see what the weather is like. When they come back to the hive, the detective bees will do a communication dance. They have built-in GPS.”
Bees typically will not fly in temperatures lower than 50 degrees. But after a prolonged cold spell, even when the weather tops 50 degrees, the bees remain cautious, afraid the warm conditions might be a fluke.
“Because they’ve been on cold-weather lockdown, they won’t come out,” said Monez, who owns Monez Apiaries and leases bees for pollination. “I know my bees haven’t been out of their hives. This is the first year I haven’t sent out bees for pollination.”
With trees budding throughout the Valley, and bees unable to get out and do their thing, a lower yield is anticipated.
“There’s no way we’re pulling a bumper crop this year,” said Turlock almond grower Christine Gemperle, a member of the Almond Board of California. “And that’s definitely related to having so many rainy days back-to-back-to-back when bees could be flying.”
Stanislaus County District 2 Supervisor Vito Chiesa, who also farms almonds and walnuts, agrees with Gemperle about this year’s crop.
“Bigger crops tend to come out of drought conditions,” said Chiesa. “Bee activity has been low, but it’s not the fault of the bees. It’s funny, we pray for rain and then get all kinds of rain — you can’t always have it your way.”
Typically, almond blossoms are the first crop that bees encounter coming out of the winter season, according to Gemperle. Growers need the bees to pollinate the crop and beekeepers need the blossom because it helps fortify their hives and get them ready for the rest of the season.
With more wet weather upcoming over the next several days, it’s unlikely that the bees will be out anytime soon.