Farm Beat

Farm Beat: Bees need water

jholland@modbee.comFebruary 7, 2014 

    alternate textJohn Holland
    Title: Staff writer
    Coverage areas: Agriculture, Turlock; local news editor on Sundays
    Bio: John Holland has been a reporter at The Bee for 12 years. He has a journalism degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and previously worked at the Union Democrat in Sonora and the Visalia Times-Delta.
    Recent stories written by John

Every bee needs a tiny amount of water each day if it is to fly about and pollinate almonds and other crops. They can find it with no trouble when rain has left standing water in orchards.

This year, not so much. The drought, especially the bone-dry stretch from early December to last week, raised concerns that the bees could be stressed. That could mean less pollination of the blooms that will become mature nuts, fruits and vegetables months later.

This topic came up briefly at this week’s meeting of the Stanislaus County Agricultural Advisory Committee. Participants mainly discussed how the drought will affect the reservoirs and aquifers that supply vast amounts of irrigation water, but the need for bees to drink was noted, too.

The chief concern is for the Central Valley almond crop, which draws about two-thirds of the nation’s commercial colonies each February and March. The nuts are the No. 2 farm product in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, after milk, and the state’s top farm export.

Beekeepers provide drinking water in containers when the natural conditions are dry. This helps keep the bees on task for the farmers who rent the colonies – and keeps them from flying off to places where they might bother other people as they search for water.

The rain that arrived Thursday and continues through the weekend could ease the problem, but beekeepers will have supplemental water on hand in case the weather turns dry again.

Beekeepers and their allies also attend to drinking-water needs at warmer times of the year, when the colonies are being trucked to crops around the nation. Last year, for example, they installed hose bibs at five California border stations, where the colonies are checked for diseases and other pests.

The partners include a research outfit called Project Apis m. It is named for the scientific term for the European honeybee (Apis mellifera), the imported species that does much of the crop pollination in the United States.

Drinking water is one of several challenges faced by the bees. They can suffer from viruses, from mites that invade the hives, from shortages of pollen and nectar to eat, and from pesticides sprayed on crops. And then there’s colony collapse disorder, a mysterious malady that has reduced bee numbers for nearly a decade.

One effort against the disorder involves planting other flowering vegetation near almond orchards so the bees can find food just before and after the bloom. The low rainfall this winter has kept much of it from growing, Project Apis m. reported, but it hopes that some late-winter growth can still happen.

Although bees need drinking water, preferably from rain, experts say they actually prefer dry weather for flying up into almond trees and spreading the pollen. But they can get the job done even in very wet years, such as 2010 and 2011, if there are enough dry stretches between the storms.

Got an idea for the Farm Beat? Contact John Holland at or (209) 578-2385.

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