AS BUSY AS BEES: Sunraysia beekeeper Trevor Monson, right, with former Californian-based researcher Elizabeth Frost.

By JOHN DOOLEY

THE statistics surrounding the Australian almond industry are quite astounding.

Almond orchard plantings in Australia increased by almost 16 percent, or nearly 5000 hectares, in 2016, to now total 36,000 hectares.

The number of almond trees now planted in orchards totals more than 10 million.

In 2016, production exceeded 82,000 tonnes, with Australia contributing almost eight percent of the global crop to remain the world’s second largest producer behind the USA, which grew 80 percent of  the world’s production.

More than 46 percent of Australian households purchased almonds in the year ending February 2017, and Australian almonds were exported to 46 countries, earning the nation $464million.

Impressive to say the least, and I think you’d agree.

The really impressive thing is that none of this would be possible if it wasn’t for the humble little bee, and people like almond industry pollination co-ordinator for North West Victoria, Trevor Monson.

Trevor is also the proprietor of Specialist Pollination Services, and has been pollinating crops in Sunraysia for almost 40 years.

“I have seen the almond industry in Victoria expand from 1000 hectares to more than 30,000 hectares, and there are predictions of a 50 percent growth in the next few years,’’ he said.

“It means an extra 100,000 hives will be -required.”

With the almond orchard expansion currently under way, Australia’s total orchard area will increase to around 50,000 hectares.

This means Australia’s productive capacity will reach 150,000 tonnes with associated exports of 120,000 tonnes delivering revenue of approximately $1billion.

Given this level of growth, the demand for pollination services is increasing all the time, as young trees mature and need more bees.

The Mildura Weekly spoke with Trevor at Almas Almonds’ Buchannan property near Robinvale, where he was working alongside New South Wales Department of Primary Industry’s Elizabeth Frost who is based at Tocal Agricultural College in Paterson, NSW.

In answer to my question regarding the importance of bees in the growing of almonds, Trevor said: “Put simply, no bees, no nuts.”

The magic of cross-pollination occurs when bees carry pollen from one variety of almond to another.

“In the case of ‘monocultrue’ (the cultivation of a single crop in a given area) the different varieties of almonds are in separate rows and they have to be cross-pollinated,” he said.

“We have a main crop and every alternate row is a ‘pollinator’, and therefore we need the bees to go from one variety to the other to transfer the pollen.”

Interestingly, some of the newer varieties are self-compatible, which means there are male and female flowers on the one tree.

“You still need bees to carry the pollen because it is heavy and oily, and can’t be transferred by wind, as is the case for citrus, vines or wheat,” Trevor said.

Wind pollination is negligible in almonds, and so there needs be a good population of bees to perform the cross-pollination, with hives distributed strategically throughout the orchard to facilitate the process.

“Cross-pollination is a natural process, as the bees gather the pollen and nectar on the blossom, they mix it together to make ‘bee bread’ which is their food,” Trevor said.

Ms Frost, originally from California, is now a permanent resident of Australia, and  worked with bees in the United States.

She is currently deployed in Sunraysia to do a research project, which involves her capturing ‘bee collected’ almond pollen that has been caught in pollen traps.

“I am also recording data on bud and bloom counts to enable the growers to be better informed of the optimal timing for the removal of the bee hives from the orchard at the end of bloom,” Ms Frost said.

Almas Almonds’ Buchanan property uses five-and-a-half hives a hectare, and each hive has a minimum of 30,000 bees.

“Sometimes there is a shortage of bees due to weather conditions, Australia is a country of droughts and floods and that can affect bee-husbandry,” Trevor said.

“With a massive 50 percent increase in almond plantings, there may be an under-supply of bees, but I think the industry will be able to keep pace with the demand.”