Community Columns

Drought over, but bee flight times still troubling

Almond farmers and ag managers will solemnly peruse their budding nuts this week. Geysers of dust will billow from the rear tires of pick-up trucks as they drive their orchards. Heard from within the trees will be some combination of howls, refrains, laments, oaths, grousing, ululations and dismissive grunts as they assess this year’s almond crop.

Stabs of doubt have plagued them since mid-February. The cold, wind and rain that ended the state’s drought have sent bee flying times plummeting. A day below 55 degrees here, a rainy day there – like bored teamsters engaged in a work stoppage, the bees hold out for just the right conditions. Even as the almond-sphere fairly erupted in milky white and light-pink across a galaxy of 1.33 million acres.

It might otherwise have been a real bodice-ripper this year with eager anthers wanting nothing more than to transfer their prodigious pollen to welcoming stigmata. So began the world’s largest mass-pollination in which beekeepers across the nation converged on the Central Valley for the almond bloom around Valentine’s Day.

Despite the enlightened times in which we now live, mankind is still dependent on a simple process involving bees. The creatures are most active in weather above 55 degrees. Below that, they may not fly. Below 50 degrees, they absolutely will not fly, said breeder Valeri Severson of Strachan Apiaries in Yuba City. They won’t fly if it’s raining – regardless of the temperature – or if the winds are over 10 miles per hour.

“Bee flight hours have been at a record low this year,” said beekeeper Gene Brandi of Gene Brandi Apiaries in Los Banos in mid-March. “The weather has caused a big delay in the production of new queens.”

Places like Modesto saw just five days in February that combined temperatures above 55 degrees, no winds above 10 miles per hour and no rain. Some parts of the northern Central Valley reported just one such day in February.

It’s still too early to tell how it has affected the almond crop. Various practitioners will be seeking comfort food this week in the early-morning glow of incandescent lighting at places like Latif’s in downtown Turlock. If the experts have it right, their brows will be furrowed and their gazes narrowed in consternation. They won’t be in any mood to confabulate, especially before they’ve had their coffee.

“The weather makes a difference in how the population in hives grows,” said Severson. “If it’s too cold, they won’t start laying drones,” she said, referring to the creation of new males inside the hive. “The workers [the females] will also kick drones out if it gets too cold, if they believe the hive is going dormant again. But if the hive wants to reproduce itself and swarm around a new queen, it will need those drones.”

Besides the usual bee stressors like pesticides, fungicides and travel fatigue will be one particularly malicious hanger-on that increased its numbers during last year’s unusually early and warm spring. It’s the varroa mite, which came to the United States from Indonesia in 1987.

If a bee were human size, it would be like having a tick the size of a pigeon stuck to you, and four or five can attach to a single bee. The brute sucks at the bee’s fat stores and can spread disease. Varroa moms sneak into the brood chambers of the bee larvae and hide until the worker bees seal the comb. Each will then lay four or five eggs and rear her young on an infant bee. Infested larvae and pupae become adults with reduced vitality and sometimes lethal deformities.

Some growers are reporting shortages and scarcity affecting their cost inputs. “Orchard growers who have longstanding relationships with beekeepers are not experiencing problems,” Bob Curtis, a consultant for the Almond Board of California, told a radio interviewer. Renting the bees is one thing. Getting them to fly is another.

Jeremy Bagott is a former journalist, a real estate appraiser and the author of “Guaconomics: Dipping a Chip into America’s Besieged Party Bowl.” He wrote this for The Modesto Bee.