In a season of mixed-blessing weather for local agriculture, forecasts for unusually heavy winter rain are causing beekeepers and their best customers — Central Valley almond growers — to cast a wary eye skyward.
Their concern is two-fold: If El Niño weather conditions bring the wetness many expect, growers may have to apply more fungicides than they typically would to guard against water-related damage, possibly putting winged pollinators at risk from dangerous chemicals.
A wet winter could also limit the amount of time bees have to pollinate during what many believe will be a very busy almond bloom, projected to arrive in mid- to late February.
None of this is to say beekeepers or almond growers are dreading the rain. On the contrary, the drought of recent years has made it hard for bees to forage sufficient wild pollen, contributing to the heavy population losses that have driven up rental prices sharply during the past decade.
The irony of worrying about getting the rain they so desperately need has placed growers and beekeepers in the same boat with other local farmers.
Growers of cherries, citrus and even almonds require a certain amount of cold weather for their trees to produce at optimum levels. But recently low temperatures have put some mandarin growers on edge because of the threat their crop could be ruined in a sustained freeze.
It remains to be seen whether wet conditions will ultimately materialize during the almond bloom. If they do, it would largely be in line with historical weather patterns.
Still, rainy days in February have come to be seen as rare, giving beekeepers and growers something new to worry about in what has been a tough few years.
In 2014, the last year for which data are available, almonds accounted for almost $1.5 billion in sales in Kern, making them the county’s second highest-grossing crop after grapes.
Bob Curtis, director of agricultural affairs at the Almond Board of California, said prospects for a wet bloom are a concern for his members. But he outlined measures that can be employed to lessen the risks.
He said one step growers should take is to rent two colonies of bees for every acre of almond trees they wish to pollinate. Although one colony per acre is sometimes enough in good conditions, he said doubling that ratio is “an insurance policy” to promote ample pollination. He also urged growers to hire only the strongest colonies of bees.
Another measure he said can reduce risks is to limit bloom-time use of fungicides to only evening sprays, when bees tend to be inactive. He acknowledged some smaller growers may not have the resources to perform all their spraying at night, and suggested these farmers consider using “systemic” chemicals that can guard against fungi even when applied well in advance of the almond bloom.
Shafter beekeeper Mike Mulligan agreed steps can and will be taken to protect bees and promote pollination in the event of a wet almond bloom. At the worst, he said, a particularly rainy February will bring complications but not necessarily endanger what is considered the largest pollination event in the country.
He emphasized growers have a strong incentive to work with beekeepers to protect bees, which every year are trucked into the valley from around the country to ensure a full pollination. Like many beekeepers, he expects a large decline in his bee population this year — as much as 40 percent, due in large part to a mite that has killed many of his insects.
As nervous as he is about sending his bees into an orchard undergoing fungicide spraying, Mulligan said he’ll gladly take wet weather over drought.
“The lack of rain is much more severe of a problem than the fungicides,” he said.