Organic berry growers say bumblebees thriving

Posted May 03, 2009, at 9:32 p.m.

JONESBORO, Maine — The bumblebee, a true Maine native, is black and yellow, hairy and large. Already this spring, they are active at Hatch Knoll Farm, an organic berry farm.

Bees are the most important pollinators in wild blueberry and other agricultural landscapes in Maine. Despite the concerns of the massive, conventional blueberry producers that the bee population is waning, Peter and Debbie Aldridge say that since they switched to organic growing, the bees are thriving.

Every year since 2003, the Aldridges have ordered six colonies of bumblebees through the mail. The boxes, divided into quadrants, arrive at the local post office buzzing and humming with impatience.

“There are about 1,000 irritated bees inside,” Peter Aldridge says. The bees are released on Hatch Knoll Farm and immediately begin pollinating the 10 acres of blueberries, raspberries and strawberries.

“They are big and fat and fuzzy,” Debbie Aldridge says. “They vibrate while collecting the nectar and collect lots of pollen. Bumblebees are four times more efficient than honeybees. They also leave a scent behind so other bees know that particular blossom has been pollinated.”

But once the Aldridges switched from conventional growing and stopped using pesticides on their berry bushes, two things became clear: The bushes themselves became healthier and more able to naturally fend off pests and disease, and the bees and other helpful insects multiplied.

“The ants, for example, eat the larvae of the bad pests,” Debbie Aldridge says. A scary-looking ant — the Allegheny mound ant, which has a fire-red head and body and a deep black tail — is a voracious predator, feeding nonstop on pest populations that are damaging the blueberry barrens.

But it is the bumblebee that is most valuable. Without it, there would be no fruit. The Aldridges’ native population of bees is getting so strong that they are debating not ordering bumblebees this spring.

“Because we stopped spraying [insecticides], our plants seem much healthier,” Peter Aldridge said, “and we have unquestionably seen an increase in the natural bee population.”

He said it has taken years to see the bees return.

The Aldridges say that switching to organic is not about making money.

“We actually make less money on organic,” Aldridge said. The average conventional field produces 6,000 pounds of blueberries per acre. The organic yield is half that. “You can’t compare conventional and organic because we are not selling the same thing,” he said.

But the couple maintain that not using pesticides is a lifestyle and a marketing choice that is worth the time and effort. “Rather than getting $1 or 50 cents a pound from conventional brokers, we get $3 a pound,” he said. “Of course, our single biggest outlet is ourselves.”

bdnpittsfield@myfairpoint.net

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