Farmers’ pollinating friends
According to the USDA, honeybee pollination is responsible for one mouthful out of every three foods that we eat each day. "The value of honeybee population to U.S. agriculture is more than $14 billion annually, according to a Cornell University study. Crops from nuts to vegetables, and as diverse as alfalfa, apple, cantaloupe, cranberry, pumpkin and sunflower all require pollinating by honeybees," wrote Kevin Hackett, ARS national program leader for the USDA (www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/mar04/form0304.pdf).
Most farmers know that to procure honeybees for pollination can be difficult, especially in light of the colony collapse disorder, where honeybees are disappearing at an alarming rate. Still, there’s hope because beekeepers who run small honeybee keeping operations will loan their bees to work the small farmers’ fields for pollination purposes.
How small apiaries help the local farmer
Ted and Becky Jones of Farmington, Conn., have been in the bee business, called Jones’ Apiaries, LLC, for the past 13 years. They were bee hobbyists for 24 years before becoming entrepreneurs.
"Our hobby beekeeping grew over the years, adding hives over time, until we felt that we really wanted to see about the possibility of the bees being a good activity for our early retirement. So, it was a natural step to go into a sideline business of beekeeping.
"There was a need for pollination here in Connecticut, our farms being smaller than the mega-farms in other parts of the country. The big migratory beekeepers move hives by tractor trailer and usually deliver at least a half a tractor-trailer load of bees at a time—that is a minimum of 220 hives. No farm here in Connecticut is big enough to need that many hives at once. Our state is still family-run farms, not corporate farms," Becky says.
The Jones own about 350 hives. They own New World Carniolan (Apis mellifera carnica) and Italian (Apis mellifera) honeybees.
Don Conlon of South Deerfield, Mass., owns Warm Colors Apiary (www.warmcolorsapiary.com) where he has been a full-time beekeeper for 10 years, and has owned bees for 45 years. He owns 500 honey hives for honey production and 30 for queen rearing.
Conlon went into the pollination business because "local farms were having difficulty finding willing beekeepers for pollination. It also keeps other beekeepers out of our area, reducing the exposure to new pests and diseases.
"Pollination is by contract with local growers. We do not move bees beyond a 30 to 40-mile area from our home yards and do not move our bees frequently during the season as we feel it adds stress and reduces honey production," Conlon says.
Ken Hoover, of Shade Tree Apiary (www.shadetreeapiary.com) in west-central Pennsylvania, operates his pollination business with limited customers. He explains, "As far as pollination, we only do it on a small scale. That involves taking a few hives to local orchards or farm fields and bringing [the bees] back when done. [I work] mostly [with] people too small to be serviced by regular commercial pollinators.
"I got into honeybees to provide pollination for my own orchard and crops. Of course, that is the start. Once started, the bees [were] like an addiction. We have members of our [bee] association that have quit four or five times. The ladies [worker bees] are so amazing and fascinating; once involved, it’s the rare individual that can ever completely get out [of beekeeping]."
Mike Thomas of Bjorn Apiaries (www.bjornapiaries.com) in Lewisbury, Pa, owns between 300 and 500 hives "depending on the time of year. I breed Russian [Apis mellifera], Carniolans and survivor stock. I do limited pollination and honey production. My main operation is queen and nuc production [the nucleus hive to make new hives]. I started with two hives and within three years and 60 hives later, was a state bee inspector. This helped me transition into a commercial operation."
Organic is best
These beekeepers all agree that limited spraying and organic farming are the best for overall bee health. The Pennsylvania beekeeper says, "My suggestions for farmers, fruit, vegetable and nut growers [and] homeowners are to not spray more than necessary and to know the safety precautions of the chemicals that you are spraying. Also, try and do your spraying early in the morning or late in the evening. This can be done with a little planning. The indiscriminate spraying done by some people would be like me, a beekeeper, setting my bee hives next to their pets and expecting them not to get stung."
Conlon says, "We will only work with farmers who do not spray during bloom, are organic and will provide bear fencing. In other words, we try to keep our bees in healthy, risk-free environments."
Hoover agrees, "Keeping bees alive is no longer a given. I personally do not treat with chemicals. I use various techniques to reduce mite loads. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Support your local beekeeper. Think about honeybees when you are applying pesticides or other chemicals. Remember, the bees need the wildflowers and clovers that grow in fallow fields and edges, too."
Thomas adds, "Think before you spray. Honeybees are only part of the pollination picture. Beneficial insects need to be protected, too."
The joys of pollinating
Beekeepers enjoy their work. The Pennsylvania beekeeper says, "The most rewarding things about beekeeping are watching how the bees work together, how God created them. You can use the bees for many object lessons once you learn how [they] interact with each other. I also enjoy retrieving swarms. Something else I’m doing is mentoring a new beekeeper."
Hoover says, "Just being a beekeeper is rewarding. Seeing well-pollinated crops and fruit is great, knowing [I] had a hand in making it happen."
Like the Pennsylvania farmer, Hoover knows agriculture, which aids in his appreciation of his bees. He says, "I was born and raised in a rural, agricultural environment. Pollination is just something [I lived] with and was taught about. I have and am still learning and observing the bees. They are born with their college education; we are just students of their behavior. I’m a firm believer in belonging to a local beekeeping association. The help and advice of other beekeepers are invaluable."
Conlon says his love of the outdoors correlates with the benefits of beekeeping. "Working outdoors in beautiful, quiet settings is another reason I enjoy beekeeping. I spend most of my working days on farms and on land rich in its wildlife plants and quiet surroundings. Working with bees is stimulating. You must like solving puzzles and trying new solutions to keep up with the challenges facing our honeybees. It’s difficult work, sometimes discouraging, but always [requires] focus and continued learning. I enjoy working in the agricultural community with independent, self-directed farmers," he says.
Advice to farmers
Conlon’s best piece of advice to fruit, vegetable and nut growers is, "Make arrangements early in the winter with a beekeeper. Many farmers call just before bloom, without prearranged contracts, and there are no bees ready for pollination; they are already committed to other farms. Beekeepers struggle to get their colonies through the winter so checking in March to confirm numbers of colonies is also important follow-up. The most important aspects of good pollination is for both the farmer and beekeeper to work together; understand the requirements for the crops targeted for pollination; timing of delivery and removal of bees; and the farmers’ willingness to protect the bees while on their land."
Jones adds, "To the farmers, be sure to do your research and know what your crop needs in terms of pollination. Open and honest communication between beekeepers and farmers are the best way to get a good job done."
Dewey M. Caron, professor of apiculture with the University of Delaware and recently retired from that post, has worked with honeybee research for over 40 years. He advises growers "to work cooperatively to solve the issues. [There] needs to be some professionalism on both sides, such as written contracts to replace the ‘handshake, ‘ but still need to communicate to avoid pesticide kills, good service, etc."
Conlon adds, "Pollination using honeybees is not always effective for all crops. Farmers should look for ways to encourage native bees, to improve habitat and increase populations and use honeybees as a buffer or as an additional pollinator on the farm. This is particularly true for small, diversified farms and organic growers."
Pollination is essential to growers, and small bee operations know their bees’ value to the continuation of the food cycle. But, beekeepers agree that limited spraying, organic farming methods and communication with them are the key components to success with each party-the farmer and the beekeeper.
The author is a freelance writer based in Ephrata, Pa. She writes for various trade magazines focusing on landscape companies, agriculture and business.