California Round 2 -- February 2022
We just finished checking the bees during almond bloom 2022. Normally we make this round just prior to the blossoms or watch the bloom unfold during our work. This time the orchard was already in full bloom before we landed in California. Overall the almond season is 2-3 weeks ahead of schedule in the earliest "flash bloom" that anyone recalls ever taking place. A flash bloom occurs when the bloom comes on very quickly across all of the almond varieties. Normally the varietals have a staggered bloom. It was extra warm and dry for weeks, and that spurred the trees into early action. It hasn't rained significantly since the end of last year, so the next great need is water to help the nutlets develop into a respectable crop. Last year was pretty rough due to the extraordinary drought that spurred wildfires in the foothills and across the Sierra.
We learned that the orchard we've most consistently pollinated ran out of water last year. They have a couple of pond reservoirs and a well onsite, but they ultimately just couldn't water the trees last year at some critical moments. As a result, they yielded half of their normal crop and have a lean budget to work with in 2022. Sometimes March blesses California with some bonus showers--we will hope that comes true this year!
The bees have the good fortune of visiting the trees after the rainy season, so there is pretty much always adequate water to launch the bloom. Then the bees get to run. The real challenge for the growers occurs in the heat of summer as the water supply dwindles and the costs mount. It costs a few hundred thousand dollars to irrigate a single large orchard through the dry season. The symbiosis between beekeepers and almond growers can only persist as long as there is enough water to power the system. Some orchards were pulled out or permitted to die last year due to water shortages and high expenses. Let's hope that pattern doesn't have to continue.
For the moment, the bees are benefitting from early stimulus. Pure pollen collection turned over to significant nectar gathering a few days ago. Almonds give pollen first, and then they produce nectar in a fairly brief window as they push carbohydrates to the new nutlets. It is so dry that I worry some beekeepers will not see the nectar they want for the bees unless the orchard is irrigating at opportune times. We don't harvest almond honey, but it is great food for the bees.
Now we wait to learn about the next phase of the beekeeping year. The usual calendar is likely to get overhauled as growers inevitably release hives from the orchards a few weeks earlier than normal to commence the chemical applications that protect their crop. Soon we will find out if we can keep the bees in California for splitting or if we need to take them back to Iowa. Every year is an adventure in uncertainty.