Millions of bees pollinating Maine berries

Posted May 21, 2009, at 8:42 p.m.

DEBLOIS, Maine — It is 89 degrees, a hot wind is blowing on Pineo Ridge, and as far as the eye can see, the wild blueberry barrens are exploding into bloom. It’s a beautiful patchwork of cream, white, pale yellow and pink flowers — 8,000 acres of wild blueberry bushes basking in the sun.

“The blossoms are opening even as we stand here,” says Nat Lindquist, chief of operations for Jasper Wyman & Son blueberry company, with a smile.

Carefully, he spreads apart a cluster revealing that one blossom has fallen off, leaving its bright green base. “That’s called a pinhead,” he says. “It means the blossom was pollinated and that is the very beginning of a blueberry.”

While standing in the middle of one of the 285 miles of dirt roads winding through the barrens, the low bushes are actually humming. Hungry honeybees are everywhere — bouncing off the car, filling the air, rushing from flower to flower in a frenzy.

“They will be here for 40 to 50 days and some of them will literally fly their wings off,” Lindquist says.

Wyman’s is the largest wild blueberry processor in the world and every year spends nearly a million dollars paying commercial honeybee wranglers to bring their precious cargo to Maine. There are no commercial honeybee growers in Maine.

Over the last week, 10,000 hives have arrived in Washington and Hancock counties. They come with about 25,000 bees in each hive and after pollination and reproduction, leave in three weeks having doubled their ranks.

“This looks very, very good,” Lindquist said. He explained that if you can see two to three bees a minute in one square meter of bushes, you will get optimal pollination. “And the more visits a bee makes to each flower, the larger the berry will be. Now we need Mother Nature to provide some nice rain throughout the summer. If this is indication, and nothing goes wrong, this could be a banner year.”

Even as the bees are working overtime in Wyman’s fields, a new survey released this week revealed that colony collapse disorder is still decimating the country’s commercial bee population.

Clusters of hives, called bee yards, are positioned throughout the barrens. Quarters — square sets of four hives — are protected from bears by electric fencing. Contrary to Winnie the Pooh images, the bears are after bee larvae and eating the honey is incidental.

Each honeybee has a range of two miles but the bee yards are much closer together. “We have so much to pollinate,” Lindquist said.

He said the honeybees will not fly if it is below 52 degrees, if it is raining or if the winds are too strong.

A week ago, these hives were standing in apple orchards and citrus groves in South Atlantic farmlands. From Maine, they will be trucked to New York to pollinate pumpkins and more apples.

Earlier this year, Wyman’s gave $50,000 to Pennsylvania State University for colony collapse disorder research.

A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Apiary Inspectors of America was released earlier this week. It shows that honeybee losses are continuing at a level that is economically unsustainable for commercial beekeepers.

“I’m worried,” Lindquist admitted. “With no bees, there is no crop, no Wyman’s.” Lindquist said honeybees are vital to the food supply.

“Einstein said, ‘Without pollination, life would not exist after four years,’” Lindquist said. “Honeybees pollinate one-third of all our food and another one-third of all the food that cattle and other livestock consume.”

The survey included 20 percent of the 2.3 million commercial honeybee colonies in the U.S. and found a 29 percent loss. The survey covered the over-wintering season of 2008-09.

This compares with losses of 36 percent and 32 percent in the two previous winters.

The cause of colony collapse disorder is still unknown, but about 26 percent of apiaries surveyed reported that some of their colonies died of the disorder — down from 36 percent of apiaries in 2007-08.

Other causes include premature queen death, starvation, cold, pests such as the varroa mite and pesticides. A more detailed report will be published later this year and commercial beekeepers believe the losses could be even greater.

Dave Hackenberg, a commercial beekeeper who winters his honeybees in Florida and provides the bees for Wyman’s fields, said earlier this week that his hive numbers dropped from 3,500 in October 2008 to 2,800 in January 2009, within the time period of the survey. But by February, he had lost 300 more hives.

“It’s spring, but the hives aren’t growing,” Hackenberg said. “I’m finding them blown out, dead or gone. They’re dwindling.”

Hackenberg said he and other beekeepers are scheduled to meet with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials next month to discuss the toxicity of “concoctions” that are a combination of fungicides and pesticides that the agency approved for use on crops.

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