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mustard mix

Winter 2021
Cover crops emphasize bee health for almond bloom

Pollination in almond orchards has become an incredible market, joining the ranks of irrigation and harvest at 15-20% of a field’s annual costs, while marking what the Almond Board of California calls the largest pollination event in the world. With roughly 2 million hives transported from all over the country to join the Golden State during bloom season, it’s a well-earned title.

Research is currently underway to determine how to bring down pollination costs, including reducing the minimum number of hives per acre to still get a great yield. What many orchards don’t have, however, is pollinator habitat for before or after bloom. Without much natural forage available in almond orchards in January, when the bees arrive, beekeepers must provide feed for their bees while waiting for the nutritious almond pollen to become available when the trees bloom. Clean orchard floors help with simplifying current harvest practices, and most growers don’t add cover crop once harvest concludes for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the myth that flowering cover crops compete with almond blossoms for bee visitation.

Project Apis m. (PAm) and Pollinator Partnership (P2), along with the Almond Board of California, are hoping to turn this around, not only for bee health, but for improved soil health and its associated benefits.

In 2013, Project Apis m. launched Seeds for Bees, a program that provides various seed mixtures for cover crops in and around almond orchards. As a collaboration between beekeepers and growers, it came as no surprise when research showed how critical bee nutrition is to healthy hives and, thus, pollination.

In the matter of bee health, Project Apis m. focuses on the four Ps – parasites (especially the Varroa mite), pathogens, pesticides and poor nutrition.

Billy Synk
Billy Synk joined Project Apis m. in 2015 to continue supporting the collaboration between the growing community and beekeepers. Photo: Project Apis m.

“We know that if we can provide good nutrition, or forage, it improves the immune system of the bee, which helps them fight pathogens – often vectored by Varroa mites – and helps them detoxify from contaminants in the environment,” said Billy Synk, director of pollination programs at Project Apis m.

This concept was instrumental in developing the Seeds for Bees forage program. While PAm is primarily a research organization whose mission is to fund research while improving crop production, addressing bee health by meeting their nutritional needs with cover crops brings with it a host of other benefits to the grower and grower’s soil.

Generally, Synk said, the top reasons for growers considering cover crops isn’t necessarily about bee health, but about the complications they’re encountering in the field, such as soil compaction. If feeding bees is a secondary benefit, Synk is happy with that.

“The program has pivoted to not be just about bee forage, but equal parts improving soil, feeding bees and educating the community on bee friendly practices that are available,” he said.

Seeds for Bees planted about 13,000 acres of cover crop in the 2020-21 season, beating the previous season’s 10,000 acres, and seeing consistent growth of about 3,000-5,000 acres each year since inception.

This has paired nicely with Pollinator Partnership’s Bee Friendly Farming program – a certification that helps promote cover crops and sustainable farming by providing guidelines to growers. For 2020, about 54,000 acres of almonds were certified as bee friendly, and the organization has found a balance in plant production and pollination.

Among other requirements, the base requirement for pollinator habitat is 3% of
the crop’s acreage. The program also requires certified growers to practice integrated pest management to a high degree, which means reducing pesticide sprays to only when absolutely imperative and protecting pollinators from unnecessary applications.

“It’s a balance between making sure we’re not substantially impacting growers’ operations, so that they’re able to keep doing what they do, but also including enough certification requirements that the biodiversity is as beneficial as possible in what we can do feasibly,” said Miles Dakin, Bee Friendly Farming coordinator.

Bee+ Scholarship

Both organizations agree that what’s good for the contracted hives is good for the native bees and other pollinators. While hives may be in the fields longer, growers and beekeepers often have a six-week pollination contract. This means that without cover crops, bees that arrive early before bloom, and those that remain after bloom, don’t necessarily have the nutritional resources nearby to maintain proper hive health.

“What’s awesome about these programs is that growers have plants in the field before and after almond bloom. For staging bees, there are flowers out, and they can get ready, get nutrients, and are ready to pollinate almonds. If bloom ends early, they’ll still have food. They’re not going to starve, and they’ll be healthier when they move onto the next crop,” said Dakin.

PAm and P2 are integral partners in the California Almond Sustainability Program’s (CASP) Bee+ Scholarship. Through the CASP system, growers are directed to apply for the Seeds for Bees program, which awards them free cover crop seeds for two years in amounts up to $3,000. The scholarship program also covers the first year of certification fees for Bee Friendly Farming. It’s integrated into the CASP system, so when growers fill out the modules, a notification will alert them if they’re close to qualifying for certification. If they do, that report can be downloaded, then uploaded and autofilled to Pollinator Partnership.

“It’s basically for growers who are very close to meeting (Bee Friendly Farming) criteria, but might not have the habitat requirements met quite yet. That cover crop can help get them to that 3%, and that can help them meet our certification criteria,” said Dakin.

Seeds for Bees clover mix
Seeds for Bees clover mix can help with erosion issues and can fix up to 80 lbs. of nitrogen per acre. Photo: Project Apis m.

The mission expands

Both organizations are seeing wider reception and adoption of cover crops for pollinator forage and increased soil health, pushing the programs’ missions into new territory.

For Pollinator Partnership’s Bee Friendly Farming, its concept (and logo use – a benefit of certification) inspired Francis Ford Coppola Winery to launch its Bee’s Box brand of wines, with 10% of the proceeds going to support programs like Pollinator Partnership.

“It’s a great example of centering around the idea even more than just putting a logo on a product. They kind of designed a specific product for it,” said Dakin.

For Project Apis m., its Seeds for Bees program, in partnership with Monarch Joint Venture, is growing its outside-the-orchard habitat program – annual and perennial herbaceous plants, native flower mixes, or woody perennials like those in a hedgerow, that are grown next to an orchard rather than within it. Though these need to be planted, treated and managed differently, said Synk, they work really well, especially for growers who already practice cover cropping.

“It’s going to really help feed and be a source of habitat for those populations of native bees, whereas inside the orchard is not. It’s also a great place to have milkweeds and support monarchs and other pollinators, and even wildlife,” said Synk.

With only about 5-10% of growers using cover crops in California’s almond region, there’s still a lot of work to do before cover cropping becomes an industry standard.

“Cover crops are still certainly being underutilized, but the tides have turned,” said Synk.

Seeds for Bees Cover Crop Mixes

PAm Clover Mix
Contains: Balansa, Persian, ‘Hykon’ Rose, Crimson, Medic, Berseem
Planting Seed Rate: 20 lbs./ac. for broadcast; 15 lbs./ac. for drill
Timing: Sept. 10-Nov. 10
Emergence: 14 days with enough moisture; grows slowly through winter
Bloom: March-June

PAm Mustard Mix
Contains: Canola, ‘Bracco’ White Mustard, ‘Nemfix’ Yellow Mustard, Daikon Radish, Common Yellow Mustard
Planting Seed Rate: 12 lbs./ac. for broadcast; 8 lbs./ac. for drill
Timing: Sow and germinate before Nov. 1 to ensure bloom before almond bloom.
Emergence: 6-8 days
Bloom: Jan.-March

PAm Soil Builder Mix
Contains: Triticale, Bell Beans, Peas, Canola, Common Yellow Mustard, Daikon Radish
Planting Seed Rate: 75 lbs./ac.
Timing: Sow and germinate before Nov. 1 to ensure bloom before almond bloom.
Emergence: 6-8 days
Bloom: Jan.-May

PAm Vetch-Grain Mix
Contains: Common Vetch, Triticale
Planting Seed Rate: 35 lbs./ac. for broadcast; 25 lbs./ac. for drill
Timing: Sept. 10-Nov. 10
Emergence: 10 days
Bloom: April-June

All cover crop mixes in California can be planted Sept. 10 – Nov. 10 while soil is still warm.

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