Water, glorious water! Annual precipitation in Nevada County each season comes mainly in the form of a few “atmospheric river” events during the winter. Because of our total precipitation being a result of the largely random and sporadic nature of such storms, it’s difficult to predict how much rain we’ll get each year, since the weather is due to the complex interaction of ocean temperature cycles (El Niño, La Niña), longer-term climate fluctuations, and the sheer randomness of how many atmospheric river storms we happen to get in a winter.
Curious, I downloaded data for the winter runoff into the Sacramento River by year* (the summer runoff is largely due to the later melting of the higher-elevation snowpack). These figures would reflect the amount of rain falling in Nevada County each winter. I’ve plotted the results out below for the years since I moved here.
Although your eye can’t help but look for patterns, it’s pretty easy to see that randomness plays the largest part, with 2017 getting the most rain since the start of record keeping in 1906). My point is that it’s a fool’s errand to try to predict what to expect in coming years, other than that the trendline is for less water as our climate warms. What does this have to do with beekeeping in Nevada County? The answer is that our local honey flows are largely dependent upon the previous winter’s rainfall—the more water, the more nectar and pollen produced by our wildflowers.
We’re currently still recovering from our groundwater depletion from the drought, but things are currently looking pretty good. Of interest is that the 1997–98 El Niño was regarded as one of the most powerful El Niño–Southern Oscillation events in recorded history, resulting in record rainfalls in California. The following summer, Yellow Star Thistle exploded, growing 4 feet high, and choking off gravel roads throughout the County. But it was also the last hurrah for a massive honey crop of this world-class honey.
By luck, in 1999 I got the contract to supply 5-lb bottles of honey to a survival food company, whose orders for 1-year survival packs were exploding due to fear of the impending Y2K collapse, with the alarmists telling us that all the world’s computers were going to crash when they wouldn’t be able to reset to the year 2000. I wound up buying and bottling close to 1000 lbs of honey a day, six days a week, week after week!
As it turns out, nothing crashed, and a large portion of Northern California’s premier honey got forgotten on the back shelves of the survivalists. The mistake that I made was not to freeze some of that incredibly flavorful honey—since that may be the last big crop that we’ll ever see. The reason is that that huge growth of Star Thistle finally allowed the populations of the biocontrol insects that had been introduced a few years earlier to explode—they ate nearly every single Star Thistle seed! The next year, Thistle could hardly be found anywhere in the County. It’s never returned to what it used to be—when vast fields turned pure yellow with Star Thistle bloom in late summer, roaring with fat bees.
So much for local history. Last week’s rains took us out of what looked like a possible return to drought, to looking like we might see a wet year. Again, it’s largely based on the roll of the dice. The rain and cold weather early in January prevented our bees from taking much advantage of alder pollen, but when the weather cleared in the last week of the month, the foragers went crazy on it.
Your colonies should now be in the full swing of buildup, with frames of brood of all ages. Check your hives for weight, since from now through April is when they may starve. Don’t forget that that means varroa has also started reproducing – check your mite counts (the alcohol wash is most accurate). If you get a count of over 1 mite per half cup of bees, I’d suggest a formic or oxalic acid treatment as soon as possible.
*Source of data http://cdec.water.ca.gov/reportapp/javareports?name=WSIHIST
Grass Valley, CA