This week we had a request on social media to offer more detail about how we are working to prepare for almond pollination season. The trees won’t open for a few more weeks, but we go through a lot of work and investment to get them shipshape before the big event. Right now I’m sitting in Nebraska on the way back from the California beekeeping tour. I’m waiting for snow and ice to get cleared off the interstate this morning, so there is plenty of time to offer a little more insight on what happens with our bees out in the orchards.
As I mentioned in the last post, we have several tasks to help set our pollination numbers and our beekeeping prospects for the new year. Rather than a three or four month overwintering period back home in Iowa, the bees are shut down for several weeks before it is time for them to work again. That means we need to nourish them and initiate mite control measures to avoid a brutal parasite load that could get out of control easily since brood rearing starts in late January. The materials involved are impressive even though we only have a little over one thousand hives that we sent for 2020 almond pollination. Let’s have another look at the truck from the last post. It has roughly 6000 lbs of syrup and pollen patties on the back of it. The pallet with the big cardboard box is a full pallet of pollen patties. We put them all out in one week.
Working away from home slows down the first day quite a bit. Materials must be secured, prepared if necessary, organized on the truck, and then driven to the work site. Every return visit to resupply usually involves a significant drive and more time getting things organized yet again. For example, here is Grace diluting the sucrose that the bees will consume until flowers return to their lives. This pumping system sitting on the plastic tote has a trash pump that can’t take straight syrup, so we mix it with water and agitate the tote with an air wand.
I don’t push to open up the bees until the temperatures are in the lower forties. That means we don’t start very early, often arriving at the orchards 9-10 a.m. The temperature is usually pleasant from 11-3, and then we work through the cooldown that leads up to nightfall. We usually stop working when it gets too dark to grade the hive populations accurately. Frames of bees are counted by cracking the boxes apart and looking up the bottom of the top box. Just looking at the top of the hive can be quite deceptive, so grading hive strength is quite laborious due to cracking every hive. We rarely achieve more than eight productive hours per day with the bees due to temperatures and daylight limitations in January, though organizational stuff and drive time can make for longer overall workdays.
I’m a fan of working in teams rather than individually whenever possible. We had four people out for this round working in two teams. That many people can assess, feed, and treat a whole truckload of bees in 1-1.5 workdays if they’re in large lots. Most of our hives are scattered through an orchard, however, so we drive around to drop sites of between twelve and twenty-four hives. Some of them are on orchard roadways, but a lot of them are in the orchard rows among the trees. Here is Josi on a UTV and trailer unit that we use in the rows.
Stops where the hives are on stands take extra time. We even have one site with a pallet stacked on top of another one (as seen at the top of this post). We actually moved that one to the side, by hand, in order to take care of the bottom pallet. Then we moved it back into the middle to take care of the top pallet. It’s honestly kind of fun to climb up on the hives, but also extremely slow when we come across one of those with no forklift in the yard.
The plus side of having hives placed in the orchard early is that they are more isolated from one another. This means they have less opportunity for circulating parasites, potential illnesses, and are less likely to rob out weaker neighbors that are often targeted when lots of stronger hives surround weaker ones. It’s essentially a healthier situation than holding yards that contain many truckloads of bees. The tradeoff is the utter lack of time efficiency. We’re still at a hive count that permits us to spend more time per hive and let them enjoy the benefits of being scattered around. They will sit in their pollination locations until they are loaded up on trucks and sent directly back to Iowa sometime in late March or early April.
For now, the bees are brooding up to provide healthy young bees for pollination season. I will be back in a few weeks to see how it’s going and to provide any necessary support. We are loaded up and out until the return journey. I sure hope I can make it back to our Iowa homebase today, but it doesn’t look extremely likely as I review the road conditions.