There’s a sound most growers like to hear when walking into a blooming field or orchard: the buzz of bees working flowers. More than 150 of the crops grown in the U.S., including blueberries, apples, cherries, almonds, melons, pumpkins, and caneberries, depend, at least to some extent, on pollination to produce large, marketable and high-yielding crops.
Larry Bodtke is a second generation blueberry farmer whose family farm, Cornerstone Ag, LLC, grows almost 1,000 acres of blueberry in Southwest Michigan. Like many growers, getting consistent, reliable pollination is a top priority for him.
“When I think of managing blueberries, pollination is right up there near the top because all the other things that we do [won’t matter] if the berry doesn’t get pollinated,” says Bodtke. “We get better yields and better sized berries if we get good pollination.”
Depending on the crop and spring weather, pollination can be tricky. Rain, wind, and cold temperatures can limit the number of good pollination days and flash blooms can make it difficult to get managed bees out in time for bloom. The shorter than normal bloom in this year’s almond crop was particularly challenging, especially for almond growers in California’s southern Central Valley.
“Bees are still being delivered to orchards as beekeepers try to finish their deliveries before bloom progresses too far,” wrote Mel Machado, Director of Member Relations for Blue Diamond Almonds, in his February bloom report.
On top of that, reports show that beekeepers continue to suffer high colony losses and that wild bees, such as bumble bees, mason bees, and sweat bees, which also pollinate crops, may be in short supply in the areas where they are needed most.
How do growers respond to these challenges? For Larry Bodtke, it means minimizing the impact of pest and disease management on bees and maintaining woodlots and wildflowers that provide food and nesting sites for bees, “Anything that we can do to help increase those populations, that can help us get better pollination, we’re certainly going to look at.”
Bodtke is not the only grower thinking about ways to support bees and the pollination they provide. A national survey conducted by Dr. Kelly Garbach, a professor at Loyola University Chicago, suggests that most of the blueberry, almond, and tree fruit growers surveyed are being careful about how they manage their farm.
“A large number of growers choose the active ingredient that is least harmful and time pesticide applications to minimize impacts on bees. Some are helping bees by maintaining permanent habitat like woodlots, wildflower meadows, or hedgerows and flowering cover crops,” Garbach says. “It’s inspiring to see the high proportion of growers that are making an effort to protect bees through their practices.”
The survey included growers of pollinator-dependent crops in selected counties in four states – Florida, Michigan, Oregon, and California. “We received close to 2,000 responses and have a great snap-shot of farms, ranging from very small to large, commercial operations with 7,000 acres in production,” Garbach says.