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From The Farm: Why Bees Are Essential To Fruit Farmers

Ann Sharkey inspects her hive on WMUK correspondent Joan Donaldson's organic fruit farm
Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

Despite the media’s out-pouring of articles about “colony collapse disorder” and about how pesticides are killing off bees, visitors to my organic blueberry farm often have not connected the dots between bees and fruit. 

The other day, my brother-in-law called and wanted to know why his small fruit trees had not set little peaches or apples. Their blossoms had not suffered any frost, and he had fertilized his trees. 

Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

 “What am I doing wrong,” he asked.

“Make friends with a beekeeper,” I suggested.

We need bees to help pollinate our fruit trees. When I tell people that we rent hives, they ask, “How do you rent beehives?” 

Some time in January, my husband, John calls his beekeeper friend, Dan Christenson and checks to make sure that Dan will be able to provide about 150 hives during blueberry blossom time.

Dan takes his hives to Florida for the winter where the bees can continue to fly while pollinating orange blossoms, instead of huddling in a cold hive buried in snow. But even in Florida, he often loses a third of his hives to mites or colony collapse disorder.

Come spring, he and his bees migrate north, and begin working in various fruit orchards before visiting my blueberry bog. A few days before our bushes bloom, John shows Dan the places where he should unload his pallets that each hold six hives.

Beehives need to be near water and should be sheltered from prevailing winds. Because bees must travel during the night when they are tucked in their hives, Dan’s loaded flatbed rumbles in either near midnight or just before dawn. He dons his bee garb, rolls off his small forklift, and distributes the pallets.

Without those precious honeybees, my blueberry bushes would not set a good crop of fruit. A few wild pollinators still exist on the farm, such as bumble bees that cheerfully work in any kind of weather, but over the past 40 years, we have seen a decline in wild honeybees.

During blossom time, we pray for mild, sunny days so that the bees will leave the hives and work. If the day is too hot, they must fan their hives in order to cool it and maintain the correct temperature. If the weather is cold and rainy, they stay inside, and the blossoms are not pollinated.

During the three or four weeks that his hives live in the bog, Dan will check on his bees to insure that no pests such as mites, and to insure that the bees have enough room. Our friend, Ann Sharkey, also keeps a hive on our farm for the summer because she knows that her bees will be safe from pesticides.

Like Dan, she routinely takes a peek inside her hive. Because if the colony of bees expands enough to crowd their home, she needs to add supers, those are the boxes filled with frames and sheets of wax foundation where the bees live and make honey. But even with proper care, bees will sometimes swarm, and then we will find a large cone-shape mass of bees hanging from a tree branch.

Because our son used to keep bees, we reach for one of his empty hives and place it near the swarm, hoping that the bees will decide to move into the box.

After the blueberry blossoms fall, Dan returns with his flatbed and loads up his hives. While making breakfast, I hear his truck roll out my driveway as he hauls his bees to spend their summer quarters in nearby pickle fields. Later in the summer after Dan has extracted honey, he will drop off a quart of honey with the fragrance of blueberry blossoms.

Although it costs thousands of dollars to rent beehives, John and I know that our farm needs these industrious pollinators in order to produce a crop and sustain our livelihood.

Joan Donaldson’s latest novel, On Viney’s Mountain represented the State of Tennessee at the 2010 National Book Festival. The Christian Science Monitor and Mary Jane’s Farm have published her nonfiction. Her book about her family’s organic fruit farm, Wedded to the Land will be released in 2013.
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