Tim Smith

Tim Smith

Tim Smith helps fruit growers and beekeepers find each other and come to agreement about how much a hive is worth for its bees’ pollinating ability.

He runs a consulting business out of his fruit farm, Apex Orchards, in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, and his major project is arranging for the 50,000 honeybee hives lowbush blueberry growers need to pollinate their crop in Maine.

“I help them contract for bees, and I also evaluate the hives for quality,” he said. “We settle on a base amount for strong colonies and adjust from there.”

He’s also involved in procuring bees for the almond crop in California.

“Almost all of the bees kept by commercial beekeepers have to go to California,” he said.

There are now about 800,000 acres of almonds there, and at a stocking rate of 2.5 hives per acre, it takes 2 million hives—and that’s about the total national supply. It’s easy to see why growers eagerly await news in January about how well the nation’s ­honeybees survived the winter. Pollination time in almonds starts in February.

Since the onset of colony collapse disorder eight years ago, hive losses have been averaging about 30 percent each winter. The impact of a hard winter could be devastating.

Almond growers are currently paying $175 to $200 for a strong hive of bees, Smith said. A strong hive is one that has 10 to 12 frames of bees and brood and about 40,000 bees in the hive. That’s a lot stronger than what he calls a “base hive” that has six frames of brood and about 15,000 bees.

After the almond pollinating season in California, beekeepers move their hives to other fruit crops, and vegetable crops as well. Sweet and tart cherries, apples, and blueberries all respond to the addition of hives of honeybees. Wild bees play pollination roles as well—but not in California almonds.

For apples, Smith says a grower should provide a hive for every 1,000 bushels of apples he or she expects, figuring the bees need to pollinate 5 to 10 percent of the blossoms to get a crop. Blueberry yields seem to respond in a linear fashion to increasing numbers of hives, and to set all the flowers, it might take seven hives per acre, he said.

“For apple growers, deciding number of hives per acre is a risk management decision,” Smith said. “How warm will it be? How rainy? What are the chances of frost during bloom?”

Blueberry growers pay $90 to $110 per hive, and apple growers less—$60 to $70.

Need to pollinate

Apple pollen is sticky and heavy, he said, so insect pollination is very important while wind pollination is not. Moreover, apples need to be cross-pollinated.

Good pollination increases the number of seeds set per fruit, boosts fruit size, improves the shape of the apple, and causes more consistent maturity, he said. On the other hand, apples have a vast surplus of flowers, and a goal is to always set the king blossom but not many more.

“Bees will work close to the hive for the first day or two after being moved,” he said. “They will forage up to two miles from the hive, and they will tend to work the most attractive crops available.”

While dandelions and other flowers compete for bees’ attention, once bees have begun working in apples, they stay loyal. “Bees will continue to work the same crop they started working,” Smith said. “Bees tend to work up and down the rows in high-density plantings. Much of the pollen transfer for cross-pollination takes place inside the hive.”

Stressful times

Over the last 30 years, much has changed for beekeepers. The arrival of Varroa mites in the 1980s changed beekeeping forever and virtually eliminated populations of feral honeybees living in woodlots. To control the mites that suck vital fluids from bees, beekeepers began using miticides in the hives.

While much attention has been given to insecticides that kill bees, an important problem is now thought to be the interaction between fulvalinate, the miticide ­beekeepers use, and sterol biosynthesis inhibiting (SI) fungicides. While fungicides themselves are not considered toxic to bees, the synergism between fungicides and fulvalinate may increase toxicity to bees by 2,000 times, Smith said.

Smith recommends that growers not spray fungicides during bloom but, if they must, spray when bees are not present and use fungicides like captan and mancozeb, which have less effect on bees.

“Time sprays to allow for king bloom pollination,” he said. Extended blooms make life difficult for bees as well as growers.

“Never spray when bees are foraging, even fungicides,” he said. “Spray early mornings or evening if necessary during bloom. Try to eliminate SI and strobilurin fungicides during bloom.”

Varroa mites are also disease carriers, and a new stain of nosema, Nosema ceranae, has added to the stress on bees. Viruses are carried as well.

Feeding bees

Because of the demand for a large supply of strong colonies for pollination, beekeepers now feed their bees, both pollen and sugar syrup, for much of the year, Smith said.

In addition to winter losses, Smith estimates beekeepers lose another 30 percent of their bees during the rest of the year.

“Replacing hives is a constant operation for all commercial beekeepers,” he said. “Most beekeepers are replacing 100 percent or more of their hives every year.”

It’s important that growers inspect the hives they rent, he said, and he can help them evaluate hive strength and overall quality of the hives.

“It’s always more cost effective to rent stronger hives of bees for pollination,” he said. “Two weak hives will never equal the field force of one strong hive.”

While renting bees can seem expensive, Smith says it takes a savvy beekeeper to make money in the business.

“The cost of maintaining a hive is about $100 a year for food alone,” Smith said. “Overall, it will cost $250 to $300 to maintain a hive.”

Pollination also is not a honey-gathering process. Beekeepers make honey after the pollination season is over, seeking out nectar sources like sweet clover in North Dakota, star thistle in northern Michigan, and the tupalo trees of the Southeast.•