Califonia Bountiful

What's the buzz about pollination?

Mar./Apr. 2011 California Country magazine

Honeybees help produce one-third of everything we eat

California farmers grow more than three-quarters of the world's supply of almonds. Pollination by honeybees is necessary to produce the crop.

Each year between February and March, knobby buds that resemble popcorn swell on the branches of California's almond trees and split open, revealing snowy-white petals with touches of pink. This signifies the beginning of bloom. Once the trees are blanketed in petals, the real show begins as billions of honeybees get to work, moving pollen from flower to flower.

It is this two-week dance of pollinating the state's almond trees that is key to producing the nut that appears throughout the United States and around the globe as snacks and as an ingredient in granola bars, cereals, baked goods and more. Without honeybees, there would be no almonds.

But the bees' pollination efforts don't stop with almonds. Fully one-third of all the food consumers eat is directly or indirectly derived from honeybee pollination, according to the American Beekeeping Federation. This covers a dizzying array of examples, from the expected—fruits and vegetables—to the unexpected—hamburgers and ice cream.

"The fruits and vegetables that we enjoy today are a product of the bees' pollination work, whether directly in the form of tree fruits or almonds, or indirectly by pollinating seed crops that allow various vegetables and other crops to be planted," said Merced County beekeeper Gene Brandi, who has been in the apiary business since the 1970s. "It is all a function of the bees. Certainly without the pollination activity of honeybees, our diet would be very bland and not as nutritious."

Merced County beekeeper Gene Brandi moves his honeybees throughout California to pollinate almonds, cherries, cantaloupes, citrus fruit, raspberries and blackberries. Some beekeepers place honeybees in alfalfa, a livestock feed that helps produce American favorites like hamburger and ice cream.

While perhaps best known for their role in producing the sweet liquid that bears their name, honeybees are among the most efficient food crop pollinators in the world. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 80 percent of insect crop pollination is accomplished by honeybees.

World-renowned honeybee expert Eric Mussen of the University of California, Davis, leads a tour of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at the university.

These multitasking insects travel from blossom to blossom in search of nectar and pollen for their survival, and in the process, fertilize crops by moving pollen from one plant to another.

In his hometown of Los Banos, Brandi maintains a few thousand colonies of honeybees that he rents to farmers throughout California. He also harvests honey from the hives.

"Any beekeeper pollinating several crops gets some degree of satisfaction knowing that they are helping to increase the food supply," Brandi said. "I pollinate almonds, cherries, berries and melons, but almonds are No. 1 because they are the largest crop to be pollinated. Early in the season, every hive we have goes into the almond orchards."

California farmers produce more than three-quarters of the world's supply of almonds.

Experts say that, for pollination, two to three colonies of honeybees are needed for each acre of almonds. Because California farmers grow 750,000 acres of almonds, they require an estimated 1.5 million bee colonies. Beekeepers from here in California supply approximately 500,000 of the needed colonies, and the remainder are trucked in from nearly every other state in the nation.

Eric Mussen, a worldwide authority on bees, has worked as an entomologist at the University of California, Davis, for more than 30 years.

Optimal pollination occurs during warm, sunny and calm conditions, Mussen said. Stormy, cold weather during bloom can discourage bees from flying and ultimately reduce the size of the almond crop.

Honeybees' health can also impact their ability to pollinate.

"To remain healthy, honeybee colonies must have a good diet of nectar and pollens. Since no one type of pollen can meet the nutritional needs of the bees, they need access to a number of species of flowers blooming at the same time," Mussen said.

Bees need to be healthy to do their work. Parasites and diseases can threaten honeybees' health and, in recent years, bees have been affected by a mysterious malady known as colony collapse disorder (CCD).

Surveys of U.S. beekeepers indicate that each winter they lose on average 30 percent to 35 percent of bee colonies to a variety of pests and diseases including CCD.

"CCD is significant and is something that scientists all over the world are looking at, trying to find answers," Brandi said.

In March after almonds are pollinated, beekeepers generally move the bees into cherry orchards and orchards of other deciduous fruits like plums, apples and avocados.

"For me, after almonds, the crop that requires the next-highest number of colonies is cantaloupes," Brandi added. "We do that starting in June, July and maybe a little into August."

Honeybees also pollinate apricots, blueberries, cucumbers, kiwifruit, pears, pluots and some citrus fruit, to name a few more California crops. In addition, honeybees are responsible for pollination of crops grown here for seed, such as broccoli, carrots, lettuce, onions and sunflowers. Even beef, milk and ice cream are closely linked to the honeybee.

"Cattle feed on alfalfa, which is pollinated by honeybees (along with other bees)," Mussen explained.

Brandi said he decided more than 35 years ago that he wanted to work with bees, after recognizing that the benefits of being outdoors and close to nature far outweigh the hard work involved in being a beekeeper.

"Some people think you put the bees out, they do all of the work and you go fishing. It is not like that at all. It involves a lot of heavy lifting, night work and moving bees," Brandi said. "I love to go to the various places that we go throughout the year to take the bees, especially in the springtime when things are so green and wildflowers are abundant."

Christine Souza is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or csouza@california

A haven for bees and people

A 6-foot-long bee sculpture, created by artist Donna Billick, greets garden visitors. The art on the bench is the work of the UC Davis Art/Science Fusion Program.

Where would we be without bees? After U.S. beekeepers suffered heavy bee losses seven years ago to colony collapse disorder, the plight of these pollinators made national headlines, causing consumers and others—including an ice cream company—to take notice.

"We became aware that honeybees are in trouble and it got us thinking about the ingredients in our ice cream that are pollinated by these important insects," said Gulbin Hoeberechts, brand director for Häagen-Dazs. "Once we realized this was an important issue for our brand and the food supply as a whole, we knew we had to do more and it became a passion of ours."

Among the company's numerous efforts to help save the honeybee was to provide funding for the new Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, a half-acre public garden on the University of California, Davis, campus. This unique, bee-friendly setting educates visitors about honeybees: what they are, what they do, why they're in trouble and how people can help.

To visit: The Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven is open dawn to dusk, no admission, for self-guided tours—but watch for guided tours in the near future. The garden is located west of the UC Davis campus off Highway 113.

For more information about planting a bee-friendly garden: Visit Häagen-Dazs' "Help the Honey Bee" website. You can also search for honeybee-supporting plants and a planting guide specific to your area.

A few honeybee facts and figures

  • Honeybees pollinate a wide variety of crops as they gather pollen and nectar for their survival.
  • Honeybees contribute approximately $15 billion to the value of U.S. crop production.
  • The number of honeybees in a colony varies from a peak of 45,000 to 50,000 in June to a low of 8,000 to 25,000 in January.
  • Flying at about 10 to 15 miles per hour, honeybees visit about 50 to 100 flowers in each pollination trip.
  • Beehives used in the U.S. are rectangular boxes meant to hold eight or 10 wooden frames of bees. When covered on both sides, each frame usually contains about 2,000 bees.
  • Honeybees will fly up to 4 miles from their hive to find food and water, an area covering 50 square miles.
  • To produce one pound of honey, honeybees must visit 2 million flowers and fly 55,000 miles.

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