Mid-February is typically a busy time for the honey bees tasked with pollinating the Central Valley’s almond orchards, but this week’s freezing temperatures have colonies hunkering in their hives as pollination season begins, leaving some farmers concerned.
Temperatures fell as low as the mid-20s Tuesday morning and are expected to hit below-freezing for the rest of the week, putting almond blooms in danger. Turlock almond farmer Eric Genzoli has been irrigating his orchard since Sunday in an effort to shield his crop from the cold and protect his blooms also ensuring that the tens of thousands of bees pollinating his orchards can find food.
“When blossoms are exposed to 27 degrees, 28 degrees for a long period of time, their cell tissue freezes and dies off,” said Genzoli. “Irrigating the orchards helps raise their temperatures during the peak freezing hours, since the water is between 40 and 60 degrees. When the sun hits that standing water, it warms up the trees even more.”
In Turlock, pollination season for almond orchards normally begins around Valentine’s Day, said Genzoli, but unseasonably warm weather this month caused blooms to appear a bit earlier than normal. In a mature orchard, there are typically two beehives per acre – Genzoli’s 18-acre crop requires about 36 hives, each of which can hold “thousands” of bees, he said.
“We put water out to help the plants stay warm at night, then hopefully the bees can come in the morning and have fresh food there and nothing’s frozen,” he said.
This week’s freezing weather, which will bring lows of 26 degrees, could spell trouble for almond pollination, despite farmers’ best efforts. According to the Almond Board of California, blossoms release pollen when temperatures are above 55 degrees, with it being collected by bees by mid-afternoon. The warmest day this week isn’t expected to reach 57 degrees until about 4 p.m.
“As far as the weather’s effect on the bees, they will not leave the hive,” said Genzoli. “They’re in search of food everyday when there are warm temperatures, and when it’s cold for a long period of time, they won’t go outside because they won’t have any food.”
Despite affecting the bees, the cold weather mainly poses a threat to the almond trees and their new blossoms, putting them at risk of freezing. Genzoli has been farming full time for eight years now, and has never had to irrigate to protect his blooms from frost, he said.
“This is an uncommon thing, and for me as a young farmer, I look to my dad for advice, strategies or techniques that have worked for him to minimize that risk,” said Genzoli. “Moving forward, we really won’t know if there’s been damage until the nuts start to form, but I’m feeling confident that they’ll be okay.”
This isn’t the first time Genzoli has run into a pollination season setback due to disruptive weather, he added. Last year, a record amount of rainfall swept the region, leaving some farmers unsure if their blossoms would be washed away before they could be pollinated at all.
The end result was a full crop of almonds, he said, despite the uncertainty. If he can keep this year’s blossoms from freezing for the remainder of the week, Genzoli has high hopes that his bees will make up for any lost time they’ve spent hiding from the cold in their hives.
“Because this is a week-long period of freezing and not a month-long period, I feel pretty positive,” he said. “We’re fortunate that we have the option to put some water on the crops, because I know there are some people who don’t.”
As the weather warms back up next week after the freeze, Genzoli’s bees will really get to work. The farmer does all he can to make sure the bees work in the best environment possible, he said, from keeping tractor work to a minimum in the orchards during the day to spraying pesticides at night time when the bees are safe inside their hives.
“We don’t want to hinder their flight or health in any way,” said Genzoli. “We want the bees to have the best experience here, nothing that could complicate their pollinating.”