112 – Bob Curtis – Improving Bee Health During Pollination


Andony Melathopoulos: [00:00:00] From the Oregon State University Extension Service, this is PolliNation, a podcast that tells the stories of researchers, land managers, and concerned citizens making bold strides to improve the health of pollinators. I'm your host, Dr. Andony Melathopoulos, Assistant Professor in pollinator health in the Department of Horticulture.

We've had several episodes highlighting the tight connection between the production of almonds in California and the US beekeeping industry. In addition, we've had some episodes where we've talked about growers and grower groups sitting down with beekeepers and coming up with strategies to make sure that pollination goes well.

And this week I am so thrilled to finally be catching up with Bob Curtis. He's recently retired. He was formerly the Director of Agricultural Affairs with the Almond Board of California, and he worked closely with beekeepers, groups like Project Apis m., and the Honeybee Health Coalition, and coming up with really concrete solutions for keeping bees healthy during pollination of almonds.

I think on previous episodes, we've talked about the fantastic California Best Management Practices for Pollinating and Almonds  (Honey Bee Best Management Pracices for Califonia Almonds) . In fact, I talked with Bob maybe two years ago when we were trying to develop something similar here in Oregon. So this is a great episode; you're going to hear about this whole process of developing these best management practices, and some of the other things that almond board has done to keep bees healthy during the pollination of California.

Okay. I am really excited to be sitting across from Bob Curtis. Welcome to PolliNation. 

Bob Curtis: [00:01:55] Thank you. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:01:56] Now, we've been following in Oregon, really closely, the real success around California almond board, working together with the beekeepers to come up with these best management practices. And just to begin, I want you just to paint the picture of the importance of honeybee pollination in California almonds.

Bob Curtis: [00:02:13] Well, in essence, almonds can not be produced without bees, and bees do quite well on almonds so there's a very, very strong working relationship in partner between almond growers and beekeepers, and certainly the bees and the almond trees. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:02:31] And it's the only grown over time, this tight relationship, has it really been a successful relationship. We've seen an expansion in the almond industry and, beekeepers have also, you know, across the country have benefited from this pollination. 

Bob Curtis: [00:02:47] That's correct. Obviously we are the, the major pollination event in the world. We have over a million acres of almonds and we've benefited greatly from the production and certainly the contributions of beekeepers and bees. 

The other side of the coin is that, the beekeepers have benefited well from our relationship in that obviously there's a good demand for bees and they're paid well for their pollination services. And typically when beekeepers or leave almonds, they have a hive increase of 25 to say 50%. And that gives them the opportunity to split their hives and increase their operations. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:03:32] I think that's one of the messages we often tell growers in Oregon because sometimes it can be a delay in bees coming back to the state, but we point out that, you know, in some ways some of these crops in Oregon are beneficiaries because we have very strong colonies coming back into the state from the pollination that can be split and then, increased supply.

Bob Curtis: [00:03:50] No, that's absolutely correct. And of course what happens after they leave almonds? If you take a look at the chain, the annual chain of migration and the bees as they move through the season, it's very important to us that there's good health and good stewardship of those hives because obviously they're going to come back to us in the spring time for our pollination and bloom. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:04:14] But it is a tricky crop for beekeepers because it is February. Colonies are just, coming out of winter and so there has been issues around bee health in almonds. One thing that I think across the nation we've been impressed with is the Almond Board's responsiveness, working through those problems. Can you tell us a little bit about the best management practices and what sort of led to them? How did they, you know, why did it become an issue? Why would the Almond Board get involved in this initiative. 

Bob Curtis: [00:04:42] Well in 2014, there was an elevated level of bee deaths during bloom. And it was apparent that there was some, say for instance... not for instance, but there were some insecticides that were used that traditionally were thought to be safe for bees, but actually the work that had been done in the observations that have been made in the field, showed that while these insecticides were safe for adults, they impacted the brood or the larvae in the hives. So, and actually, even prior to that, the Almond Board had put information on its website and put out articles and outreach, but it became very apparent what we needed to do was to pull the coalition of almond people and beekeepers and, folks from the University of California, the apiculturists, the extension people and the regulators. And what we did, we formed a working group and from, say like late spring to summer put together our first edition of the best management practices and then made a really big and concerted push for outreach.

We distributed the manuals, but we gave in that first year between 2014 bloom and 2015 bloom, over 70 presentations to a wide array of individuals. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:06:13] And so this is remarkable. It seems like you were able to bring all the right actors to the table and work efficiently. It's amazing that I'm sitting across from the best management practices... it's a later edition... but it's very comprehensive and very, it sort of, it really thinks carefully about all the people who are involved.

It doesn't think about it in broad, abstract ways. It's like, there's this person, and this person, and this person, and they're connected. 

Bob Curtis: [00:06:39] That's right. 

And that was one of the things that really facilitated our quick responses is, there is what we call the communication chain. And folks within that communication chain were involved in the work group.

And of course it starts with beekeepers and bee brokers, and it goes to the growers. And then it's the pest control advisors and applicators are very important. And then certainly also very important are the agricultural commissioners and the regulators. All those folks were involved in addition to the chemical registrants and, that's really the genesis of this document. And it's more than just about pesticide safety, and safeguarding the health of bees; there are other aspects in the best management practices, like talking about the importance of forage and having that supplemental forge, in particular, for supplemental nutrition before and after bloom. It talks about, for instance, providing good fresh water for bees. So it's pretty comprehensive. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:07:46] I also noticed, actually let's take a quick break before we get into it. Let's take a break, and then we'll come back and let's go through the manual because I think it's very comprehensive in terms of all the elements that are included there.

Okay, we're back. So I'm holding in my hand, which edition of this is the best management practices?

Bob Curtis: [00:08:17] This is the second edition. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:08:18] Second edition. It's a beautiful publication. And so I'm just looking at it. And the one thing I noticed, right as soon as I opened it: the very back, it has these amazing little cards. They're rigid. And, they look like they could hold up to things. And what are those cards? 

Bob Curtis: [00:08:34] Well, after doing the manual, the work group members looked at each other and said, "this is a wonderful reference, but people are not going to use it as a quick guide and reference." So what we decided to do was to put key elements of the manual, on these cards.

And as you say, there's two cards. One of them is more for the folks, the stakeholders, that are involved in managing the pollination operation and say for instance, providing pest control, pest compliance services. And the second card is, for the applicators. Key things to remember when they're making applications. And you'll see that the backside is ... depending on what you call front and back, one side is in Spanish.

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:09:22] Oh, great. 

Bob Curtis: [00:09:23] And the other side is in English. Now, for the other card that I talked about, the overview, if you turn it over it actually goes beyond the bloom. It covers everything before and after the bloom. Now these are rigid for a good reason. The general card, we want it to be a reference that goes into the pickup truck.

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:09:45] Oh, that's right. Cause they probably took the training; they were in a big meeting with a lot of other talks and like, "Oh yeah, bees are coming in." And they just pull it out of the pickup truck and they look at it. 

Bob Curtis: [00:09:53] Here are the key things that I need to remember. And then of course for the applicator card, we want that to be in the car of the spray rig as a quick reference for the applicators. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:10:03] Right. And just reminding them there, for example, to contact the beekeepers 48 hours before an application. And it has all of these quick tips that they sort of can think about when they're going out to do an application. 

Bob Curtis: [00:10:13] That's right. And you'll see that actually it's focused then not only on the  person in the cab, but also the individual, the applicator, that is managing the whole operation, and the contacting the beekeepers is obviously very important.

And one of the reasons we did the revision is that we now have the BeeWhere program in California, that electronically sites beehives, and the applicators can then go, when they do their, notice of intent...

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:10:48] Really? 

Bob Curtis: [00:10:49] Yeah.

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:10:49] I didn't know about this. 

Bob Curtis: [00:10:50] Yeah, they do the notice of intent and then, the popup is to, if there are hives other than the ones that are pollinating in the orchard, hives within a mile radius, so that the applicator can contact the beekeeper and they can discuss how it's all going to happen. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:11:11] That's fantastic. And, I guess this whole thing starts even before the bees come in. So just looking in the publication, it sort of has a sequential from before til bloom, til the pullout. What are some of the things that are being recommended for before? 

Bob Curtis: [00:11:26] Well, to actually back up to that: the key component to this is communication between all the folks in this communication chain that I talked about earlier.

And right even before the bees are moved in, there should be a dialogue between the beekeeper, bee broker and the grower in terms of what products may be used and a good decision and agreement as to how they're going to be used. For instance, obviously there's some insecticides, most insecticides, except for one that is an organic insecticide, we recommend do not apply those during bloom because there are other times during the year that you can impact the pest that you're going after. And for instance, for fungicides, we obviously need to protect the crop, during bloom and particularly before rain events. The recommendation there is to apply those in the afternoon and evening when the bees and the pollen are not present.

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:12:28] And letting the residue dry out. 

Bob Curtis: [00:12:30] Before the bees come back into the orchard the next day, and the pollen is exposed again. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:12:35] All right. So the communication is this key part. And so when colonies come in to pollination, I guess that must be a very chaotic time. All these bees from so many states coming into the... and finding a place to rest.

What's, what's sort of the recommendations around moving in? 

Bob Curtis: [00:12:52] Well, in moving in, obviously it's important that the grower provide good spots and good locations to place the bees and have very good access. And of course, when you move the hives in someone needs to be sure that there are good, fresh water supplies. And if there are any applications, those supplies need to be either covered or dumped and replenished. And of course, another element to this is, really encouraging, the planting of a supplemental forge. And again, this is very important for prior to bloom with almonds and even after bloom, because the beekeepers aren't going to be there immediately at the end of bloom. Sometimes they are, but our recommendation is as soon as the bloom is over, you should get the hives out, but that doesn't always happen. So if you have the forage after almond bloom, there's two benefits to that. Number one, you're providing additional nutrition for the bees.

And number two, it anchors the bees in that area because one of the problems with having hives in almonds after bloom is that the bees will continue to forge and can get into harm's way, and other crops like alfalfa, where their insecticide applications made. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:14:17] Yeah. Well, and I guess on that, remember, we had a previous episodes, one with Elina L Nino, and also with project Apis m. with Danielle Downey, talking about the Seeds for Bees program and how this has been really a success story in California almonds.

Bob Curtis: [00:14:33] It is. And you'll see when you look at our manual, we work very closely with Seeds for Bees. We actually have done a lot of the research that, and with Elina and Neal Williams documenting the benefit... the forage for bee health, throughout the year and after, the bloom period. And then with Danielle Downey, we work with project Apis m., we work very closely with them in terms of their Seeds for Bees programs and really promoting and encouraging growers to engage in that wonderful outreach program.

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:15:06] It goes without... I don't know if people kind of recognize it, but really California Almond Board funds a lot of research on pollinator health. Yeah, you must be the largest grower commodity group supporting bee health research. 

Bob Curtis: [00:15:20] Yeah. We are the largest grower commodity group, and we've been, you know, people talk about bee health. We've actually funded bee health research going back to 1995. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:15:31] That's amazing. Yeah. So how's this gone? So we've got this, best management practices distributed it's in this form that's easy to read. Tell us about some of the successes. 

Bob Curtis: [00:15:42] Well, obviously, one component of California agriculture is that we do have the pesticide use reporting data from the Department of Pesticide Regulation.

And we have shown a substantial reduction in the use of insecticides during bloom and in particular, well over 50% reduction. And then also there's been a shift in what insecticides are used, of those that are used. Of course, we'd like to get it just down to say like the organic BT, but for those insecticides that are used, there's been a real shift in terms of, going to the products that we know have less impact on bees than the ones that were used previously.

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:16:25] Oh yeah. We started the episode off, you said like the real, the kind of point where the best management practice was sort of... the need for it came about, was these insect growth regulators. And I think you've been able to demonstrate a real reduction in their use. 

Bob Curtis: [00:16:41] Yeah. It's a very high reduction.

So we're, we're very pleased about that. But, we'll continue messaging in this outreach program because it's very important. And also in particular, we're going to continue to advance and promote the planting of forage for bees. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:17:00] Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for taking time to talk with us.

I know we're following what's going on in California very carefully, developing our own BMPs for growers in Oregon, so it's a real inspiration to us. 

Bob Curtis: [00:17:11] Well, thank you. It's a pleasure to work with you and to provide what information we have. 

Andony Melathopoulos: [00:17:18] Great.

Thanks so much for listening. Show notes with information discussed in each episode can be found at PolliNationpodcast.oregonstate.edu. We'd also love to hear from you, and there are several ways to connect. For one, you can visit our website to post an episode specific comment, suggest a future guest or topic, or ask a question that could be featured in a future episode.

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See you next week. 


Pollinating crops can be difficult on honey bees. Since 2014, the California Almond Board has been working with beekeepers, pest control advisors and groups like Project ApisM to come up with standards (Best Management Practices, BMPs) to increase the health of bees in California Almonds. This week we talk with former Director, Agricultural Affairs, Almond Board of California (ABC), Bob Curtis, about how the BMPs were developed and how effective they have been to help bees during pollination. 

Bob has had an productive career with the Almond Board, and, in fact, still works with the Almond Board as a consultant. In 2013, Bob was awarded the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CA&ES) Award of Distinction, which recognized his work as a liaison for the betterment of partnerships between the almond industry and the agricultural research community. In 2018, He received the Eric Mussen Distinguised Service Award from the California Beekeepers Association and in 2019, Friend of the Industry Award from the American Honey Producers Association. He has served on several advisory groups, including the UC Davis CA&ES Dean’s Advisory Council. Bob received his master’s in agricultural entomology from UC Riverside and a bachelors in zoology from UC Los Angeles.

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