Once out, those almond blossoms might look all picturesque and peaceful, but for those who are living off the almonds the predominant feeling is, in the words of one of our beekeepers, “breathless anxiety”.
Just before bloom, in late January, it is the first time that the beekeepers see their hives after winter; and after the massive losses of the past years, they have come to expect the worst with every load that arrives in California.
When too many of their colonies failed over winter, they will not be able to fulfill their contracts with the almond growers. Not only will they loose lots of money, they also will have to find replacements for their hives, and at this time of year, every other phonecall revolves around the question “Who has extra bees?”. They also have to keep a close eye on the progress of bloom, because the day bloom starts, all the bees have to be placed and ready to work in the orchards. No excuses.
For the almond growers, the situation is even worse.
Bloom is the time of year that decides about their entire crop. It’s now or never. Every flower that is not pollinated will never become a nut. So for the almond people it is not only important that the bees are there in time and strong, but that they are actually doing the job they get paid for. But bees only fly at temperatures above 13°C (55°F). And while the growers have some control over bees and beekeepers, the weather they control not. And this year, in late February, the weather had some pretty bad news:
Cold and wet is not nice for the bees and slows down the bloom, but you can always hope for better weather tomorrow. Frost, however, kills the flowers and can cause serious damage in the trees. So even if the weather is brilliant tomorrow, there is nothing there to pollinate. Frost means immediate and possibly permanent loss. And quickly. As much as 50% after 30 minutes (Dan Cummings).
Which is why the almond growers try everything to avoid frost damage.
Although water is an expensive good in the Central Valley, whenever the forecast is frost, they will crank up the irrigation and keep the soil as wet as they can, because as the relatively warm water cools it releases heat into the air. Only a few degrees, of course, but they can make all the difference.
In many areas they also send up helicopters at night to literally stir the air and to make sure that no cold pockets persist in the lower reaches of the more hilly orchards. This, too, is expensive, and not without risk for the pilots, because they have to fly low in uneven terrain at night. We heard of one whose searchlight failed in midflight. And the orchards are dark. No streetlights, no markings, just powerlines, hills and trees all over. Luckily, he found some workers who were out with their trucks. They guided him to an open field and made a ring with the trucklights so he could land. He made it safely to the ground just before he ran out of fuel.
By now, however, all battles are fought. Bloom is over, the crop is set, and the beekeepers are moving on to new pastures.