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Soils and bees benefit together from cover crops

Red clover is a common cover crop.
Red clover is a common cover crop.

The last few posts on these pages have touched on the pressures on what some might call the most important asset of any farm: healthy soil.

Good soil may be threatened by a number of different factors, but one of the most serious is erosion. When soil is left exposed, the threat of erosion becomes more grievous. Cover crops are planted to help prevent erosion where fields are fallow, resting for the next crop, or in and among other crops, in areas where further production is impractical, such as in orchards.

This is exactly the case in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where almond orchards are prevalent. The planting of a cover crop along rows of almond trees is done mainly to prevent erosion, but it can have another benefit: providing forage for bees.

Almonds are dependent on the European honey bee as an exclusive pollinator, unlike many crops which might be pollinated by native bees, wasps, and other insects. So important is this relationship that it is a common practice to truck honeybees in for the purpose of pollination, to insure the best possible crop. However, once the almonds are pollinated, there is often little other forage in an almond orchard to sustain the honeybees.

At Grewal Brothers Farming in Madera County, they planted a new cover crop of alyssum, clover, and mustard last fall. When beekeeper Brett Adee came to pick up his bees, he was pleasantly surprised.

"Wonderful," Adee said, deciding the bees should stay for a few more weeks. That way, he wouldn’t have to feed them supplements until the weather warmed up at the bees' South Dakota home. "The supplements just maintain them, they don’t keep them nice and robust," he said.

"Pollen is the best food for bees," said Meg Ribotto of Project Apis m. This is a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing both bee colony health, and crop production. They provided the cover crop seeds free of charge to Grewal Brothers. These seeds were chosen specifically to bloom before or after almonds, and were offered exclusively to almond growers, because of the special relationship they have with honeybees.

Grewal Brothers planted this mix among almonds, peaches, pistachios, and grapes, especially on sandy soil that lacked organic matter. "You’re doing two things - helping the bees and helping the soil," said Gurdial Grewal.

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