Replacing bees for almond pollination

Almonds are the second-largest crop in California’s agriculture sector, worth $21 billion a year and growing, and growers are hopelessly reliant on managed honeybees — almost three quarters of the country’s commercial colonies, Embry says, work these groves at some point.

Natural alternatives are slim, she explains, because only three bee species have been widely used as managed pollinators, “two cannot be woken from their winter’s sleep in time for almond bloom, and the third is banned for open field use in California.”

BOBs are nothing like honeybees, however. Honeybees are social. One queen and thousands of female workers live together in colonies that can last for years. Multiple generations of workers divvy up the jobs that keep the hive functioning. BOBs are solitary, spending their entire lives alone except when they mate. Mating is a male bee’s only job. Because they do not collect pollen for the babies, males often are not even counted in pollination work. …

BOBs also work harder, from a grower’s perspective: “a few hundred females can do the pollination work of 10,000 honeybees,” and they can be “woken up from diapause, a dormant state, and delivered to the crops when needed.”

But their breeding cycle makes them fragile, too. While a honeybee’s death “is trivial because a healthy colony generates tens of thousands of workers across a year,”

Any loss of a BOB female matters: it permanently reduces the current year’s pollination workforce and diminishes next year’s crew because fewer eggs are laid…. With only one generation annually, it is not surprising that it has taken Wardell so long to figure out how to mass-produce BOBs. “If you make a mistake, you have to wait a whole year to make another mistake,” he says. “My boss doesn’t appreciate the humor in that.”

Since 2009, Wardell has developed a program for large-scale breeding of BOBs in a 20-acre array of mesh-walled cages, with the potential to produce 2 million bees per year. The coming year will determine whether his solution is going to work at the scale the marketplace may soon require:

In 2017 Wonderful needed about 76,000 honeybee colonies to pollinate its almonds (at two colonies per acre). But that number will diminish by 320 this spring because Wardell will put 128,000 female BOBs into the orchards—the largest deployment ever. If Wardell’s experiment succeeds, the results could have far-reaching implications for the almond industry as well as a host of other early-blooming crops—from apples and cherries to apricots and peaches.

All told, more than a million and a half acres could benefit from having BOBs as a backup—if they prove worthy this year. It has taken years to get this far, and problems still await.