Ah, fall. The leaves are changing, the weather’s getting chilly, and the bees are wrapping up their last few jobs before the winter.
Back in the office though, beekeepers and growers aren’t slowing down. Yep, it’s that lovely time of year when everyone starts to worry about almond pollination.
Pollination prep done right
For those of us who are sending bees to California for the first time, there are a lot of things to consider before loading the trucks. First, I strongly recommend you review Joe Traynor’s articles on almond pollination. Joe’s been brokering hives for decades, and he’s the best resource out there on the topic.
When it comes down to negotiating price, now is the best time to reach an agreement with your grower. Don’t wait until it’s time to cut a check to haggle on price.
If you agree to do an inspection, figure out who’s paying for it, who’s actually doing it (either a state inspector or a private company), and when you want it done (early season hive strength results will be different from late season).
Maximize value for your grower
Keep in mind that while almond pollination is a pivotal time of year for you, your grower has a different perspective. They don’t care so much about the details—they just want the job done right and done on time. These are the top items on your grower’s mind:
Communication is absolutely essential. You need to tell your grower ASAP if you’re concerned about meeting one or more of those above items. That said, you don’t want to burden your grower with issues that aren’t related to the above items. If your trucker falls through or you choose a different overwinter yard, these are problems you should resolve on your own.
Over-communication can cause growers to think you’re too high-maintenance to work with. The name of the game is long-term value. Your goal should be to show that you’re trustworthy and capable—this is how you secure contracts year over year.
On that note, you should plan to check in with your grower at least once a month to let them know how the bees are looking. Are you still on track to hit your quota? Do you still expect to hit the 8-frame average? Is there any reason they should worry about on-time delivery? Lining up more bees at the last second is a major headache, so help your grower out by giving them a clear idea of what to expect.
Almond pollination is not an easy job, otherwise it wouldn’t pay so well. The best way to avoid conflict is to set clear expectations and communicate well.
Finally, give your grower a few ways to get in touch. Repeatedly getting sent to voicemail is the fastest way to lose your contract next year.
Here at The Bee Corp, we try to see eye-to-eye with everyone we work with. More often than not, that's easier said than done. Especially when it comes to our bees.
Seeing what's not there
Human eyes transform 2D images into a 3D images much like the way an artist would paint a scene. When you look at Leonardo da Vinci’s infamous Mona Lisa, you can tell Mona is up close relative to the background. But the painting is in 2 dimensions on a single piece of flat canvas, how can that be? As it turns out, our brain infers depth and distance by literally tricking itself into seeing depth, which is why optical illusions work so well.
However, what’s more interesting is that bees are capable of being tricked by the very same things we can get tricked by. Recently, scientists found that a bee’s vision functions much like a human’s, and they are able to infer depth based on their brains tricking them as well. However, our fuzzy little friends have one small advantage over humans: their vision works in the ultraviolet spectrum.
Show me the honey
What does it mean to view ultraviolet light? This image gives an idea of how bees see a yellow flower.
A. Shows how humans see a yellow flower
B. Same flower through UV light
C. Captured through an array of straws to simulate insect compound vision
D. Shows a merge of the pictures processed on the computer and gives an idea of how a bee might see a flower.
Putting an ultraviolet light to a flower reveals certain parts that you normally wouldn’t see. For example, certain flowers are white in visible light, but become dark under ultraviolet. This same mechanism helps attract bees to certain flowers, by having a blue/Ultra-violet halo around the center of the flower, usually where the pistil and stamen are located for pollination. These concepts allow bees to maximize honey production by prioritizing which flowers to visit.
Seeing the future?
For humans to gain a better understanding of issues facing bees, perhaps we should view their issues in a different light. Research into flowers under ultraviolet light taught us many things, like which flowers to plant in pollinator gardens to attract bees.
But what about the other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum? Learning more about bees through other light wavelengths like infrared light, X-ray and radio waves could yield valuable findings about how these complex creatures interact with the world around them.
We learned from conversations with growers and beekeepers that timing is crucial for almond pollination. Bees need to arrive in the orchards just in time to start pollinating the almond blooms. As soon as blooms have been stripped of pollen, the bees need to leave the orchards to find the next food source. Growers need to treat their trees, but sprays must wait until the bees are on their way out.
All this talk about timing begs the question: what's the rush? It's all about food.
What's on the menu?
California's Central Valley is a unique place. Consistent weather and reliable sunlight makes for an ideal agriculture climate. Wyatt describes it as America's true breadbasket.
The Central Valley produces an insane amount of food. More than half the country's fruits and vegetables are grown in this sun-kissed corridor. So why is this fertile oasis such a hostile ecosystem for bees?
Simply put, the food grown there is made to feed humans, not bees. Bees forage on plants that provide a steady source of pollen and nectar. Although almond blooms offer highly nutritious pollen for bees, there isn't much for bees to eat after pollination season.
Where can I find ____?
Worth the commute?
Worth the wait?
Another important consideration is bloom time. Almonds bloom very early in the season, ending weeks before other crops begin to bloom. Although plums, cherries and citrus blooms can overlap with almonds, those crops account for less than 2% of the cropland in the Central Valley. Alfalfa would be a good source of bee forage at 29% of the nearby cropland, but bloom doesn’t start until May.
We often get asked by outsiders, "why don't almond growers just manage their own hives?"
This was my roundabout way of illustrating one of the key reasons why not. It takes a lot of work to keep hives going through the year—even with an abundance of local forage sources. If a grower needs to send someone out every couple days to feed the bees, it's probably not worth the value of not needing to rent hives every February.
Well...ok...the drones are not ‘killing’ the pollination business just yet. But, since my last post on drone pollination, I’ve found some other alternative pollinators that are trying to find a place in the pollination market. Perhaps these drones will help alleviate bee supply issues some growers are facing.
In North Carolina, Thomas Parish IV and his team have built the Poli-X2 drone, which pollinates more similarly to bees (unlike the Pollinator Bot, referenced in my previous blog post). The Poli-X2 has been testing in local gardens since 2017. One of the biggest challenges they faced in developing their model was inhibiting the device from lurching forward when flying in for flower pollination. From what I can see in the video footage, it looks like they’ve done a pretty good job with this.
Their model is not designed to replace bees, but to supplement the pollination done by existing bees. The drone uses artificial intelligence to scan for pre-programmed species of flowers, including tree flowers. At this time, the images being collected from the device are being sent via WiFi to a nearby PC where decisions are made regarding which plants to pollinate. Later development plans are to install this decision-making software within the device... that’s what we call edge computing, good ol' IoT (internet of things).
The Bee Corp is headed to the Forbes AgTech Summit next month in Indianapolis, and fellow attendee and panelist Anna Haldewang has been working on her own pollination drone, Plan Bee, which she first devised for a product design course at the Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia.
The drone is controlled by a smart device and has six sections on its underside that suck pollen from the flowers it hovers over. The pollen is later expelled for cross-pollination. It’s innovative…and, yes, I’m going to say it...it’s so darn cute! Art and Engineering combined!
Now, there are other ways of getting flowering crops pollinated... such as literally dropping a whole mess of pollen from the sky. Dropcopter, the aptly-named startup with offices in New York & San Francisco, has developed a drone to do just that. Some test results show that the Dropcopter drones can increase "pollination rates" between 25-60% in almonds & cherries, depending on weather conditions.
It's unclear how they measure pollination rate—perhaps it's the number of times each flower is visited by bees? Regardless, I applaud this no-frills approach.
But if you want to get REALLY heavy-handed with the pollination, you can give the guys from Pollen-Tech a call. This Arizona-based AgTech startup doesn’t use drones in its operation, but an electrostatic spray technology to mist almond trees during pollination season. Initial field test results showed a 6.55% increase in crop yield over untreated control-group trees. The electrostatic charge helps the pollen become attracted to the stigma of the flowers, increasing the efficiency of the process, without significant pollen loss.
It’s great to see all of these technological innovations in the works. For the near future, these methods are only equipped to supplement what the busy bees are doing in their pollination efforts. And they could help give growers some peace of mind when aren’t able to book the bevy of bees they need to get their crops pollinated. Exciting times for AgTech!
This year has been among the hottest years on Earth, July being no joke. With the unusually high UV radiation coming from the sun and incoming heat waves, one can really feel the sting of summer on their skin. Speaking of stings, how are the bees staying cool this summer?
We know that bees naturally vent hot air out of their beehive, and cool it down by fanning their wings. An individual healthy hive is comprised of tens of thousands of bees, all working together to maintain the colony's core temperature. Whether fanning to cool down during the summer or clustering to stay warm during the winter, bees are always toying with the thermostat to their internal HVAC system.
This has me wondering: how hot is a bee?
Hot or not?
We can calculate the amount of heat a single bee exerts based on how many bees are in a hive and the volume of the hive. Making lots of assumptions, we can now cross the t’s here, dot the i’s there, take the derivative of temperature with respect to the volume, compute gas laws, et voila! We find that each bee is between 30-38 degrees C (or you can just read this paper).
Of course, my estimate is very rough, and the paper goes into more in depth methods on how they found those numbers. Not all bees are created equal, in fact; some bees contribute more, and some less with a variation of up to 12 degrees.
Bees are known for their complex ecosystem and efficient task delegation. A honeybee colony is a uniquely selfless community known as a "superorganism". Rather than trying to complete a diverse range of tasks individually, bees realized they can be better off by dividing the workload and specializing in certain tasks. Part of this ecosystem is something I find absolutely astonishing: Heater bees, a sub-caste of nurse bees with abnormally high body temperature that strategically maneuver about the hive.
These wireless space heaters aren't just for comfort—their precision temperature control is important for raising brood. Brood frames that will produce foragers need to be kept at a slightly higher temperature than brood being raised for housekeeping tasks. These little ladies will even squeeze into empty forager brood cells to warm it up from the inside, working as a radiator of sorts (minus the coolant flush). How neat is that?
I'm always fascinated by all the quirks and factoids there are to learn about bees. Even one small area of research—hive temperature regulation--has produced so many revelations about how a hive works. But revelations also lead to more questions, such as why does hive temperature drop when a colony becomes queenless? A great question for a future post...