Placing beehives in a good location in the orchard is one of the keys to getting honeybees to do the best possible pollinating job.
Orchardist Eric Olson of Yakima, Washington, who is one of the country’s largest beekeepers, said a good place for them is a centrally located bin loading area.
“I hate putting bees on the border,” he said during an industry discussion on pollination. “The bees come out of the hives in a 360° pattern, so, if they’re on the border, they will go to the neighbors or somewhere else.”
An open area within the orchard is better because the bees will be warmer and therefore fly more than if they are in shaded areas, such as under the trees. Bees are more active in warm weather and stop flying when it cools to 50°F, so it’s important to keep the hives warm. And, bees that are grouped in one area, rather than spread throughout the orchard, will compete with each other and move around, doing a better job of pollination, Olson said.
He stressed that bees fly, not crawl, so it’s not necessary to have a hive by every tree. Hives should be placed out of reach of sprinklers. “Make sure they’re in an open place, the front entrance is not blocked, and they have sunlight and as much warmth as possible,” he urged. “If you place the bees where they’re totally soaked at night, all day long the water is evaporating and cooling the hive, and they won’t fly.”
Jack Hein, field horticulturist with Olympic Fruit Company, Yakima, said he asks the beekeeper to cover hives with black plastic to warm them up when necessary, taking care that the entrance doesn’t accidentally become covered.
The quality of the hives is important, but since most growers would hesitate to open the hive to look inside, it’s important to work with a beekeeper you trust.
Just looking at the number of bees around the entrance to the hive can be misleading. When the hive is first put in the orchard, the grower might notice lots of bees flying around the hive. That’s because they are orienting themselves so they can find the hive again, Olson said. After several days, the bees will spend most of the time in the trees.
There’s another reason the number of bees around the hive is not an indication of colony strength. Olson said he knows of beekeepers who rented out hives that had few bees and had syrup in to help build up the colony. Just looking at the bee entrance, it might seem that there were lots of bees going in and out, but that’s because the syrup was attracting bees from all around.
Jeff Lunden, a grower, beekeeper, and research assistant with Washington State University in Prosser, said that in order to assess bee activity, a grower should go to the middle of the orchard, away from the hives, and listen for the bees humming.
Bee counts are a good tool to evaluate if there are adequate bees in the orchard. Count the number of bees seen per minute in specific trees. In large, old trees, a good number would be 30 to 35 bees per minute. In a dwarf apple tree, ten bees per minute might be about right, he said. Lunden said when bees fly, they are collecting food to build up the colony. The queen lays eggs, and the worker bees feed the young developing bees. “If you don’t have brood that’s growing and creating a demand for food, then you don’t have much demand for the bees to go out and collect the pollen,” he said. “The motivation for the bees to collect pollen and nectar is the developing brood.”
Olson reminded growers that bees don’t care whether they are pollinating the blossoms or not; they are out looking for what they need. All worker bees are female. For the ten days after a worker bee completes her physical development, she is a housekeeper and tends to the brood. For the next five days, when she knows how to fly, she’s a water gatherer, and the next two weeks she’s a pollen gatherer. “That’s the one you really want,” he said, “because she goes out and is collecting pollen like crazy to feed the brood. For the last two weeks of her life, she’s a nectar gatherer.”
Because worker bees of different ages have different functions, it is important to have a source of nectar for the nectar gatherers, and fruit trees don’t have nectar. If those bees don’t find nectar in the orchard, they will go out of the orchard to find it, Olson said. Dandelions are a source of nectar in the orchard, and the nectar gatherers will provide some pollination of the crop on the way back from the dandelions to the hive. Olson said he doesn’t think dandelions affect the pollen-gathering bees because they prefer to be up in the trees, rather than on the ground. “What’s good for the beehive is good for you,” he said.
Bees need water as well as food and like to gather from puddles, but they can be killed if they take water from pesticide-contaminated puddles near the sprayer. When the water gatherers are killed, there’s a void in the hive and it no longer provides good pollination.
An open bucket is not a good water source because the bees can drown. Olson recommended leaving sprinkler faucets in the orchard running a little to create some mud. It’s not necessary to have a water source in front of the hive.
Asked about native pollinators, Olson said they make good partners with the honeybee but can’t be relied on entirely to pollinate the crop because there is such a short window for pollination and there might not be enough native bees to get the job done. Lunden said importing bumblebees doesn’t work because they are hard-wired to a specific location and they would just take off somewhere else.
The discussion took place during the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting in December.