Agriculture

Blackbirds, honeybees get help on the farm

A federal program aims to rebuild populations of the tricolored blackbird by paying Central Valley farmers to delay harvesting of certain feed crops in spring. The birds nest in the crops because most of their natural habitat is gone.
A federal program aims to rebuild populations of the tricolored blackbird by paying Central Valley farmers to delay harvesting of certain feed crops in spring. The birds nest in the crops because most of their natural habitat is gone. Dave Menke

Let me tell you ’bout the birds and the bees, and how farmers are helping both to thrive.

First off, a few dairy farmers in the San Joaquin Valley took part this spring in an effort to protect the tricolored blackbird. The species has taken to nesting in large concentrations in feed crops, in lieu of its much-reduced natural habitat.

The farmers got a total of $231,227 from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to compensate for the reduced feed quality resulting from the delay. An estimated 57,000 young birds took flight from these 378 acres before the harvesting machines moved in.

This is still far less than the millions that used to fly about the Valley, but backers of the program see it as progress. The tricolored is not to be confused with the red-winged blackbird, which is still abundant.

This is the sixth year the agency has done this. This time, it was in Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties, along with Riverside County in Southern California. The feed is a wheat-rye hybrid called triticale, planted in the fall.

Western United Dairymen, based in Modesto, is a partner in the effort. So are Audubon California, the California Farm Bureau Federation, Sustainable Conservation and an industry group called Dairy Cares.


The other effort involves the honeybees that pollinate almond orchards in late winter, making possible one of the Valley’s most lucrative crops.

Many commercial beekeepers have seen large losses in bee numbers in recent years. Experts have suggested several causes, including diseases, pesticides and the stress of being trucked around the country. Bees also lack nourishment when their sources of pollen and nectar fall short.

1.7 millionNumber of commercial honeybee colonies rented to California almond growers each year

$18 billionEstimated worth of U.S. crops pollinated by honeybees and other creatures each year

Almond growers can help by sowing wildflower seeds that produce blossoms just before and after their crop’s pollination. They are provided for free by Project Apis m., a partnership named for Apis mellifera, the scientific term for this species.

The seeds for 2017, to be planted by early fall, are vetch and mixes of mustard and clover. They can be planted between the tree rows or along orchard edges, providing erosion control and biodiversity while feeding the bees.

For more information, go to www.projectapism.org.

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