About one third of all kept US honeybees have been trucked
to California for the largest planned pollination event
in the world. Nearly a million hives have been hauled into
almond orchards to get those bees working early. Each year
more almonds are planted and soon the demand will surpass
a million hives.
past few years have seen the loss of almost all wild honeybees,
and kept hives have been cut by about half to around 3
million hives in the US. At the same time wild pollinators,
such as bumblebees, orchard mason bees and leafcutter
bees have been declining due to pesticide misuse, loss
of habitat (suburban development, clearcut logging, changing
farm practices) and general environmental degradation.
fruit and vegetable crop yields have remained high, and
even increased in some cases, because more and more beekeepers
have become migratory, doing much more with less.
fall, hundreds of tractor trailers of bees were moved
to California from Washington, Oregon, Montana, the Dakotas,
Minnesota and other northern states. Their primary reason
was to be ready for almonds, though they were moved in
the fall to also take advantage of the milder winter in
month bees started arriving from Texas, Louisiana and
other Gulf Coast states, even as far as Florida.
of the unloading is done by night, with forklifts to handle
the hives in pallets of four. This year has been "mudville"
due to the heavy rains of El Nino. In some cases, it has
been impossible to get the bees directly into the orchards
and they have had to settle for higher sites along the
margins. In other places big tractors and even bulldozers
are used to pull the trucks through the mud.
strange midnight "cowboys" can be found in the
coffee shops at daybreak in the almond country, coated
with mud and dead tired. Beekeeping is not an easy life,
and many beekeepers are known as "rugged individualists"
or as "independent SOB's" depending on your
perspective. But this almond crop, and other major US
crops, totalling about ten billion dollars worth of produce,
depend on these hard working guys.
soon as the trucks are unloaded, the bees are given a
gallon or two of high fructose corn syrup to stimulate
the queen to lay more eggs. Bees that have a lot of babies
to feed are better pollinators, because the brood requires
protein-rich pollen. This means more workers will be going
to deliberately gather pollen, rather than nectar. A nectar
gathering bee will accomplish some pollination, but a
pollen gathering bee will be about ten times more effective
as a pollinator.
is a major problem, especially when there is a shortage,
and most of the beekeepers stay as close as possible to
their bees. Whole truckloads of bees have been known to
disappear in one night. Beekeepers have been known to
keep the bees in the most junky possible equipment so
as to make them unattractive to thieves. Humans and other
creatures also can steal the syrup pails, as soon as the
beekeeper's back is turned.
almonds, many will be moving northward to the Yakima valley
of Washington, and other apple growing sites. In recent
years, some of the Florida truckloads of bees moved clear
across the country again, to upstate NY for apples, then
to Maine for blueberries, then to Michigan for pickle
cucumbers, before returning to Florida for the winter.
beekeeping today is not about honey, so much as for pollination.
Growers have to pay the beekeepers to get bees; they would
not come unless they were paid, since most pollination
crops yield little honey. Alfalfa, one of the few honey
producing pollination crops, are stocked so heavily to
maximize pollination, that there are too many hives to
produce significant honey. This is another reason why
growers must pay for the beekeeper service.
contracts account for the largest share of commercial
beekeepers income today. Bees are moved to crops that
are honey sources (like clover) to supplement the pollination
business is not without hazards. Last year California
authorities destroyed a tractor-trailer load of bees from
the southeast, because fire ants were found in some dirt
in the bottom of the pallets. If a truck wrecks or breaks
down in a populated area, panicky authorities may destroy
the load. They don't think about the fact that the $40,000
worth of bees may be going to pollinate a million dollars
worth of fruit or nuts.
kind of loss can sink a beekeeper, and there are only
about 1600 commercial beekeepers left in the US. Insurance
companies will provide cargo insurance for the beehives,
but not for the bees, as it is just too risky. On a hot
day, bees can die simply because the truck is caught in
a traffic jam and cannot keep air moving to the bees.
A chain reaction is started. The bees become overheated
and become agitated, which creates more heat, which makes
them still more agitated. In some cases the honeycomb
literally melts down, killing brood and usually the hive
lot of bees used to be trucked in refrigerated trucks,
which works better than open netted loads, as long as
the reefer is able to keep up with the heat production
capacity of the bees. But too many reefers failed and
few are trucked this way today.
friend of mine experienced a reefer failure about ten
years ago. When he opened the back doors, all the bees
were clinging to the walls and ceiling. The queens from
various hives were intermingled and all the brood in the
hives was dead.
salvage them, he set out the hives, and put a scoop shovel
of bees into each hive. Then he ordered 500 queens from
a queen producer, which were hand delivered for speed.
By that time, some of the bees had totally drifted out
of some hives, but he tried again to equalize the bees,
and added a queen to each.
was finally able to salvage about half the hives, but
they were too weak to do any pollination or honey production
for that season. The trucker's cargo insurance refused
to pay anything; they had a clause in the fine print.
who fervently hope for a commercial beekeeper to be nearby,
will not likely see honeybees in the spring. Most commercial
bees will be in orchards for paid pollination. But later
in the season, the bees may be spread around in "bee
yards" of 40 or 50 hives, to make some honey. If
one of these is nearby, you'll be guaranteed good pollination
for your later garden, ie. cukes, melons, squash and pumpkins.
apples and other home fruit, you might be able to strike
a deal with a beekeeper to provide him or her a site for
a bee yard, in exchange for a promise to leave one or
two hives there during the spring fruit bloom. Most of
the bees, of course will come in later. And, of course,
this only works for folks who have a little acreage. To
avoid community problems (kids especially), bee yards
should be somewhat isolated and hidden.
and more gardeners are finding that they cannot rely on
other beekeepers, so they are getting a hive or two of
their own. Call your local extension office to see if
they or a local bee association are offering training
courses for new beekeepers. If they are not, jack them
up, because they should be.
gardeners are putting up mason bee homes, which are simple
drilled wooden blocks, which are used by these solitary
bee females for nesting sites. Stingless mason bees are
excellent fruit pollinators, but not for garden veggies,
because they go dormant after the spring.
culture is also a booming business, but so far is so expensive
that it is mostly used for greenhouse production of tomatoes,
peppers, strawberries, etc. Costs run around $200-300
for a colony of 50-100 bees. A visit by a bumblebee on
your cuke blossom is worth about three visits by a honeybee,
because the bumbler is so much more brawny and fuzzy.
Bumblebees are poor for fruit, because their populations
are very small early in the season. They are great pollinators
for vegetables or very late blooming fruit, when their
colonies are established.
third of our food supply must have bees. Many gardeners
don't realize that pollination is not an "on or off"
thing. One bee going to a flower is not usually sufficient
to make a quality fruit. Many flowers require 15 or 20
visits to make perfect fruit. Each time the bees come,
they rub against the sticky pistil and smear on more pollen
grains. A watermelon blossom requires about 1000 grains
of pollen, evenly spread across the three lobes of the
you look at a sliced melon, regard the seeds. Each white,
unpollinated seed represents potential that is not realized.
If there are many white seeds, the fruit will never attain
full size and sweetness. How many times have you been
disappointed when you tasted a poorly pollinated melon?
Knotty or curled cukes, flat-tasting cantaloupes, small
lopsided apples and many other fruits and veggies tell
the tale of growers who assumed that wild pollinators
would be sufficient, and they weren't. Nowadays pollination
must be managed, just the same as fertility, pest control
and other aspect of growing fruits and vegetables.
- a bee or other agent that transfers pollen from one
flower to another, thus accomplishing cross pollination
of the seeds, which stimulates development of high quality
- a plant variety that provides compatible pollen at the
same time as the plant to be pollinated (ie. a "daddy"
plant). Plants do not "pollinate" other plants;
bees do that. And no plant variety is a "pollinator,"
again, that is the bee's job.
If you talk to an "authority who talks about "pollinator"
plants, or plants "pollinating" other plants,
you'd be wise to check another authority whose thinking
isn't so muddy. Plants pollenize other plants, bees pollinate
them. I would not buy from a nurseryman who does not know
Dave Green -- Hemingway, SC USA