Farm Focus: Nourishing Bees

Mustard Mix cover crop in the new almond orchard

Mustard Mix cover crop in the new almond orchard

We took a trip out to our new almond orchard last week to see if the cover crops we planted in mid-November germinated. We were greeted with an early holiday gift. The rows in between the berms where the almond trees are planted displayed neat rows of bright green shoots striping the orchard floor with new growth. This is good news for both the soil and the bees. 

Almonds, as well as about 35 percent of the other foods we eat, depend upon bees for pollination. Keeping bees healthy is essential for our food security and for ensuring ample yields. Just like us, bees need quality nutrients to stay healthy. Providing bees with a nutrient dense diet builds their resilience to pests and
diseases as well as other stresses commonly associated with large scale commercial almond production, like pesticides and transit. Almond pollen is a nutrient dense food source, containing about 25% protein, and is an excellent source of food to promote hive health. But bloom time for almonds is limited and bees need high quality sources of nutrients for more than just a few weeks to ensure hive health. That's where the cover crops come in. 

Working with the California non-profit Project Apis M.'s Seeds for Bees initiative, we've planted three types of seed mixes designed specifically to thrive in our dry California climate and to provide diverse and nutritious forage for bees at times when it is otherwise scarce. These seed mixes bloom both before and after almond trees flower when managed hives as well as native bees are highly active. 

Hives are often placed in almond groves prior to bloom, or in smaller operations, stay in the orchard year round. Providing bees with forage through cover crops prior to almond bloom helps "anchor" the bees to the orchard. If there is ample food source in the orchard before bloom, the bees won't need to venture out of the orchard in search of pollen, which is often scarce.  The mustard seed mix we planted will start blooming in January or February. Having an early food source will also spur bee colonies to begin increasing hive population sooner. In addition to fostering a larger colony and anchoring bees to the orchard, bees provided with ample early season forage end up weighing more and being more efficient foragers, increasing pollination. 

Our cover crops also benefit our soil by increasing the soils water holding capacity, fixing nitrogen, and adding organic matter to the soil. But that's a topic for another day!