An online survey of almond growers showed more interest in growing bee-friendly cover crops than in planting other pollinator habitat, and explored additional aspects of how almond farmers can boost the health of the insects that pollinate their trees.

The survey, which concluded in February, collected information from 329 respondents who represented about 14% of the state’s 2019 almond acreage, with orchards from 1 acre to 49 acres in area.

Jennie Durant, a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture postdoctoral scholar at UC Riverside and UC Davis, presented survey results last week during a webinar hosted by Project Apis m.

Working with pollinator organizations, beekeepers and the almond sector, Durant said the survey asked farmers questions about whether they follow Almond Board of California bee best management practices; whether they plant cover crops; their knowledge about permanent pollinator management; and whether they would participate in a voluntary bee-friendly certification program.

The survey also collected data about which bee-friendly practices farmers have adopted, barriers to implementing best management practices and what incentives might drive broader adoption of bee-friendly procedures.

Of the farmers participating in the survey, 72% said they rent bee colonies, about 11% rent some and supply some of their own, 9% supply all of their own bees and about 6% had orchards not mature enough for pollination. Among surveyed farmers, 65% said they obtain bees from beekeepers, 20% from bee brokers, 4% from another grower and about 5% answered “not applicable,” Durant said, perhaps because orchards were not mature enough for pollination or they supply their own bees.

The survey said farmers obtain bee colonies for almond pollination from out of state, 41%; from near the orchard, 25%; from the same or an adjacent county, 21%; and from a non-adjacent county, 22%.

“We asked growers to rank bee concerns about future pollination. Colony costs was the No. 1 concern by far, followed by declining bee health. Also, more moderate concerns for growers were lack of available colonies and loss of native pollinators,” Durant said.

The survey asked farmers about incentives and barriers for adopting bee-friendly practices, which include best management practices developed and collaboratively agreed upon by growers and beekeepers in 2014. Among the surveyed farmers:

• About 51% grow or are interested in growing cover crops — 35% already grow cover crops and 16% expressed interest; with the rest not sure or not interested.

• Related to adoption of pollinator habitat such as hedgerows, perennial or reseeding wildflower strips, riparian forests and filter strips, 38% of growers said they were growing or interested—19% already growing and 19% interested—and the rest were not sure or not interested.

• About 74% of growers said they are interested in bee certification.

The survey showed almond growers were much more satisfied with cover crops than pollinator habitat, Durant said, adding, “We see this overall trend towards cover crops being a much more viable option and pollinator habitat being more of a challenge. In general, cover crops are in the orchard for less time, they can be tilled in before other important things are happening and they may not require as much water. There’s a lot of reasons why they might be just an easier target for growers in terms of supporting bees.”

The survey showed the No. 1 incentive for growers planting cover crops is colony strength, Durant said, followed by a decreased reduction in bee colonies.

The top pollination concern for almond growers is the cost of bee colonies, she said, although “overall, growers were very satisfied with the price of their bee colonies and very satisfied with the strength; however, 30% find their colonies too expensive, so this may be a compromise point or discussion point that could help incentivize growers to adopt bee-friendly practices.”

According to the statistical analysis, Durant said the growing region proved to be a key variable. Regarding adoption of best management practices, Durant said Sacramento Valley growers were statistically more likely to adopt cover crops than those in either the northern or southern San Joaquin Valley.

The greater adoption of cover crops and pollinator habitat in the Sacramento Valley could be due to the lack of water and expense of water in the San Joaquin Valley, she said, so a regional approach to supporting pollinators might be the most effective strategy.

“If growers thought the cost of bee colonies was a strong concern, they were less likely to adopt cover crops. If they were concerned about the lack of available colonies, they were more likely to adopt cover crops,” Durant said.

Early next year, Durant said, she will interview farmers for further information. She said she is interested in developing a pollinator and forage credit program so farmers can qualify for a bee certification by helping fund and support pollinator habitat.

Grace Kunkel of Project Apis m., which hosted the webinar, said it attracted “a mix of growers, commercial beekeepers and researchers.”