Study Finds Bees Can Have Their Wildflowers and Almonds, Too

wildflowers by almond orchard

A study in an almond orchard near Lost Hills, California, has shown that a wildflower (Phacelia ciliata) planting during almond bloom did not cause fewer honey bees to visit the orchard. (Photo credit: Ola Lundin, Ph.D.)

By Josh Lancette

New research published this week in the journal Environmental Entomology shows that planting wildflowers next to almond orchards does not cause fewer honey bees to visit the orchard. This finding is important because it shows wildflower plantings can help keep bee populations healthy while also not harming almond crops.

Josh Lancette

Josh Lancette

“Establishing flowering field-edge plantings has gained popularity as a strategy to mitigate the threats that bee pollinators face in intensively managed agricultural landscapes,” says Ola Lundin, Ph.D., one of the researchers and an author on the paper. “The basic idea is simple: to provide more flowers for bees. Flower plantings can potentially affect pollinator visitation rates in neighboring crops both positively by supporting pollinator populations and attracting them to crops or negatively by distracting them from crops. Growers and practitioners are often understandably concerned that alternative forage blooming concurrently with the focal crop might compete for pollinators and negatively affect crop yield.”

While the concern that wildflowers would pull valuable pollination services away from almond crops is understandable, the study suggests that almond growers can put this particular concern aside. While honey bees (Apis mellifera) did visit the wildflowers, it didn’t detract from the number of bees visiting the almonds. But how can this be?

“We suggest two explanations as to why the wildflowers and almond might not compete for honey bee visits,” says Lundin. “One is that wildflower plantings might increase bee foraging activity overall—crop and non-crop visitation combined—such that visitation to non-crop plants in the borders increases when wildflower plantings are added without affecting crop visitation. The second explanation is that the loss of foragers from the crop to the wildflower plantings might be negligible because the crop resource is large relative to the non-crop resource.”

Planting wildflowers next to almond orchards might also be good for the bees.

“The high honey bee visitation rates to the flower plantings suggest benefits of wildflower plantings for honey bees,” said Lundin. “Such benefits may include the ability to support or increase bee population sizes before and after almond bloom and increased resistance to harmful effects of pesticides and pathogens through a more diverse diet.”

Interestingly, wild bees were rarely found visiting the almond orchard, regardless of whether wildflowers were planted or not, a finding that Lundin said indicated “a limited potential for augmenting crop pollination using wild bees in the highly simplified agricultural landscape where we performed the study.”

Josh Lancette is manager of publications at the Entomological Society of America.

Comments

  1. Paul Cherubini says:

    This research finding is moot because the vast majority of California’s almond growers only need hives of european honeybees brought into their orchards for 3 weeks each year in late winter, hence they have no interest in maintaining a seasonal or year round population of native wild bees. Plus wildflower strips grown within or next to their orchards require gasoline, herbicide and sometimes scarce supplies of water to establish and maintain.

    • Hi Paul, I’m a commercial beekeeper and I really like the idea of having alternate pollen sources for my bees around the almond bloom. Even though almond growers only need bees for 3 weeks doesn’t nesesarily mean that’s the only time the bees will be in the orchards. The growers want all the bees in place by the first bloom. For some larger beekeepers this means putting hives in weeks before the almonds have any flowers at all. This flower plot would help provide food for my bees while they are waiting for the almonds and the weeks after the bloom is finished. The bees would increase in population before the bloom, potentially increasing the hives pollinating power. Definitely not moot.

  2. Britt Vincent says:

    European honeybees seek the pollen sources they need to meet necessary fats and amino acids. Diverse pollen sourcing is imperative for colony vibrancy. Working to meet the honeybee nutritional requirements goes a long way towards enabling bees to overcome disease, pests of the hive and traveling stress associated with hive placement in almond orchards (or other locations). Now let’s look at addressing pesticide exposure.

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