Honey bees are abuzz in the Lodi area, helping local farmers and visiting flowers in search of a meal. They are as busy, to use a cliche, as bees.
But without some help, they may not stay that way.
Just 12 years ago, beekeepers began losing entire hives to a mysterious condition called colony collapse disorder.
Although honey bee hives have largely stopped the loss, colonies were down in January 2018, the most recent date for which numbers are available. Large operations saw only a slight decline from the previous January — 2.63 million colonies, down from 2.64 million in 2017.
But smaller operations with five or fewer colonies saw a decline of 9 percent from January 1, 2016 to January 1, 2017, the most recent data.
Bees aren’t out of the woods yet, though, and that has spurred growers to action.
Here in California, crops such as melons, walnuts and apples rely on bees for pollination.
A recent Australian study found that without bees, cherry trees tended to have a 2 percent fruit set — compared to 35.9 percent fruit set in trees nurtured by bees, according to BeeAware, a website run by Plant Health Australia.
Few are as concerned with honey bee health as almond growers.
“Almonds require cross-pollination between varieties, and so we accomplish that using bees,” said Nick Gatzman, an almond grower with Travaille and Phippen in Manteca. “Every almond that you eat is the product of a bee visiting a flower in an orchard.”
Without bees, California’s almond crop — worth $5.6 billion in 2017 — would disappear. The trees are entirely dependent on bees for pollination.
California produces 80 percent of the world’s almond supply, Gatzman said.
Because of that, almond growers were hard hit as bee populations declined. Honey bees are bouncing back from the scare of colony collapse disorder — for now — but beekeepers still travel around the United States with mobile hives to help with pollination.
They start in California each year, pollinating the almonds, Gatzman said.
These professional beekeepers have to travel to keep their hives well-fed and healthy, due in part to the huge farming operations in the Midwest that grow only one crop for miles.
California is seeking to buck that trend.
“The Almond Board (of California) along with Project Aphis has really been pushing growers to plant cover crops wherever they can,” Gatzman said.
They plant vetch, mustard and clover at Travaille and Phippen. Other growers plant different flowering plants.
“There’s a program where growers can actually get those seeds for free (from the Almond Board),” Gatzman said.
The variety doesn’t distract the bees from their job of pollinating the almonds, but it does give them a variety of different pollens and nectars. Like with humans or any other animal, a varied diet keeps the bees healthier.
Bees who have access to forage plants as well as crops are healthier, research is showing.
“Honey bee colonies foraging on land with a strong cover of clover species and alfalfa do more than three times as well than if they are put next to crop fields of sunflowers or canola,” The Bee Report wrote in a recent story.
Putting managed honey bees in North Dakota near a variety of food sources led to higher numbers of bees and an increased ability to turn pollen and nectar into useful substances for the hive, the website said, citing a study by Agricultural Research Services.
The selection of flowering plants doesn’t just help the hard at work honeybees, though. By planting forage plants — especially native plants — California native bees and butterflies also benefit, along with other pollinators.
Keeping honey bees and other pollinators healthy is vital — not just for the bees’ sake, but to prevent the massive, still unexplained decline in bee populations that hive managers saw in 2006 and 2007.
Colony collapse disorder is still a looming problem, and no one really knows the cause.
A lot of factors may play into CCD, which can leave hives empty: diseases, parasitic varroa mites, pesticide use, a lack of plants for foraging.
The mobile bee hives, so necessary for the agricultural industry’s survival these days, may be adding to the problem, local beekeeper Cherie Sintes-Glover said. Traveling means that bees from all over — and any illnesses they might be carrying — mingle with the local bees.
In turn, they may catch any illnesses or parasites plaguing the local populations and bring them home.
Beekeepers work to prevent that, she said, by regularly checking their hives and treating them for issues like mites as necessary.
But researchers haven’t found levels of any one factor to be high enough to trigger the widespread losses beekeepers saw 12 years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.
“... the cause of CCD is still unknown, but research is beginning to lend credence to the hypothesis that CCD may be a syndrome caused by many different factors, working in combination ...” the agency states on its website.
The Almond Board of California funds research projects to study colony collapse disorder and the problems that add to it. So far, more than 120 studies have been funded with more to come.
“As an industry, we are constantly putting money into research and development,” Gatzman said.
Growers take their relationships with beekeepers seriously, too. Gatzman begins calling Travaille and Phippen’s preferred mobile apiaries in December to see how their hives are doing and what they need coming into the almond bloom.
Over the past five to seven years, Gatzman said, some growers have been experimenting with self-pollinating almond trees, but those are very new.
The main advantage would be that almond orchards could plant just one variety of tree rather than two or three for cross pollination, making harvest a lot more efficient.
They won’t eliminate the need for bees, though, Gatzman said. They can grow the tasty almonds alone, but they’ll have a much better harvest with some help.
“The bees tend to enhance that pollination,” he said.
Focusing on proactively boosting bee populations is the best solution right now.
While growers can help by planting cover crops, everyone with space to grow a plant or two can help honey bees, other bee species, butterflies and other pollinators.
Milkweed — especially the California native narrowleaf milkweed — provides a food and egg-laying spot for endangered monarch butterflies as well as high-quality nectar for bees, according to the Xerces Society.
Lacy phacelia, California poppies, summer lupine and California goldenrod are just a few of the native plants the society recommends to feed pollinators.
Bee baths are also important.
And if Lodi residents find a hive where it shouldn’t be, call a local beekeeper — nearly all of them would be willing to collect the hive and take it somewhere safe, Sintes-Glover said.