Wednesday, January 28, 2009

One little bit of good bee news.

This started out as a comment over at The Crusty Chicken; but it kept growing, and got to comment-clogging proportions.  So I moved it here.

Basically, Ruchi  sent out a plea for some good news to cheer her up; things looking just a tad depressing out there these days.  We are, indeed, scrod, in many ways.

But, Ruchi, I do have a very nice piece of happy news for you (and I suppose everybody else, too.)  I haven't written about this event elsewhere, been kind of saving it up.  

I have about 150 apple trees; 30 years old; grafted them all myself, on random seedling standard rootstock. (And for those horticulturists out there who are shaking their heads and asking "Why??!!" - I had excellent reasons; now borne out perfectly.)

Last year; Spring of 2008, I went out to see how the bees were doing. I'm sure everybody here is aware of the Colony Collapse Disorder problem.  There has been loads of media coverage, all heading towards "This is it, then, we're all going to die."  All our food will disappear!  All our professors are clueless!  (no comment, there...)

Like any orchardist, I've watched the bees every year. Most years for the last 20, my apple trees have been full of wild European honeybees; many many thousands.

It depends on the day, of course; on a calm, warm, sunny day, the bees are hard at work. If it's cold, windy, and cloudy- they may still be there, but in much lower numbers- if the whole flowering season is stormy, apple orchardists worry about poor pollination cutting the crop.

Last year, on a coolish but calm and sunny day, with the orchard in full bloom- I watched 4 apple trees, for about 15 minutes, and couldn't find a single bee- of any kind. Not only no honeybees, but no bumblebees (we have about 5 species, I think); no carpenter bees, and none of the tiny wild ones that you overlook when the tree is buzzing.  Not one bee.  Not even a bee-fly.

(click on pics for bigger view)

That got me pretty worried. We've had other years where the honeybees were down- but the wild bees were always abundant. From 2003-2006, we'd let a beekeeper place around 10 hives on the farm; he got basswood and clover honey; we got a little honey for ourselves, and the apples were loaded with bees. But in 2007, he couldn't afford the gas for the travel anymore, and pulled his hives.

I made a point of looking the next day. No bees.   Understand, now- I was really looking hard for any bee.  And finding- zero.  I'd never had that happen before, in 20 years.   And I looked the next day. On the third day, I did see a couple bumblebees, and one of the tiny ones.  In 15 or 20 minutes of searching- an abysmally low number of pollinators.

At that point I got distracted by some emergency or other, and was not able to keep tracking the bee behavior in the apples.  I was pretty sure we were going to be toast, crop-wise.  For most of the spring, I was not figuring on the apples for any real food, or money that year.  I thought there'd be a few apples; but nothing like a crop.  

And- I was wrong.  We had a huge apple crop; maybe our biggest, though it's hard to compare them, because our 30 year old standard trees are still dramatically increasing their yield, year by year.

This is one of our Golden Russet trees, in 2007; in 2008, the crop was much heavier, probably at least double.

Somehow, Ruchi, the apples got pollinated.

My strong belief is it was the wild bees, and other insects; they just weren't flying on the 3 days I looked, but somewhere in the week and a bit pollination window, they must have had a day they liked, and they got the work done- just fine.

There's actually an article today in the NYT kind of suggesting this "might be possible" - since it looks bad for the honeybees, the author says: 

At present, wild bee populations are too small, too few and too far between to take on the task of pollinating our crops. That, of course, is why fleets of domestic honeybee hives must be trucked in to do the job. But if the wild bees were provided with habitat of the right kind and in the right geographic arrangement, they could achieve pollination both reliably and effectively.

You may notice that the writer is excessively pessimistic - on all points.  At least here- where we use no pesticides, and always keep habitat diversity and complexity high, as a matter of good practice.

Gosh.  It works.    Not in some distant future- last year.  Somebody might want to tell the Times...

So, Ruchi.  Does that help?  :-)

A good part of the lesson, I think, is that the mainstream media is now in a doom feeding frenzy- it's the trend.  So where they were all denying doom 6 months ago; now they all want to be in the forefront; and have a slight tendency to expand the doom quotient in their stories now.

Nature can find a way- if we let it.


jennconspiracy said...

Thank you, Greenpa, you rule!

I have been hoarding honey (bad vegan, I know!) in the event - oh, ok, just because it's good - but still...

jennconspiracy said...

Btw, where can I get some of your apples? I can help you make all kinds of yummy stuff.... :)

ruchi aka arduous said...

Aw, this did make me feel better!! Thank you.

Theresa said...

Whew, that is some good news for a change. Thanks Greenpa! How gorgeous to live amongst apple trees :)

Farmer's Daughter said...

We had tons of bees here last year. Since we're planning to get some apple trees in the spring, I'm not at all worried about pollination. My parents' apple orchard used to have hives when I was a little kid, but now they just rely on the wild bees, and they've been fine.

Laurie in Mpls. said...

That *does* help, actually. Thank you, Greenpa! :)

Now I just want to know where I can get my hands on your apples*. Darling Husband and I usually do one major (for us) apple run in the fall, and yours sound like right up our alley....

*Yes, I do realize that sounds a little naughty. ;) What is it about organic produce that DOES that to me?

Rob said...

well, interesting. I DID put a link to this post up in the comments on that NYT article- and - they didn't put it up. It's been 6 hours- 3 updates - not there.

Pretty sad, I have to say.

truewonder said...

Woke up too early this morning, googled "little bit of woods" to see if others out there had a love affair with the world around them like I do...yep- here you are.
My two cents on bees- for the last two years, in my gardens, around the edges and just plain keeping the soil covered, I've tried Buckwheat. Bees love it, birds love it, and this farmer loves it because it can go from seed to flower in 30 days. It's always abuzz with pollinators, butterflies -all the best little helpers for the garden. Also, certain plants when in blossom, will give off a rotten flesh scent and flies will then move in and pollinate. So, I am not above putting out rotting, smelly stuff around my tomatoes to get them pollinated when I don't have the time to brush the buds. Great blog...good wisdom and advice. I'm really interested in your sustainable nature- in the near future I'm looking to swap the beautiful big old farm for more land, less building and renewable energy. Glad to see your version of such a life. Thanks.

tickmeister said...

I see bees around my place even now whenever the temp. gets up to 50 for a few minutes. I'm 62 and I think this is the third colony collapse event of my lifetime, there being a really bad one back in the 1950's and I think also one in the 80's. Natural calamities are fun to fret about, but so far haven't materialized except very locally.

Anonymous said...

Wow! The bees and other insects, small as they are, are powerful. I am only just now learning about the links necessary to have fruit/veg/plants grow, and this makes me want to know more. Great news that yours are back!

Leila said...

I'm glad for the good news about the bees. But I'm still pretty sad about the West Coast salmon - and what about Atlantic cod, long gone? Sardines? lots of little fishies gone extinct. I hope that in 10K years they might return but in my lifetime???


Meanwhile I did see honeybees and a bumblebee around our sunny Oakland home this week. Spring is once again about 3 weeks early, and we've had disastrously little rain, 3d year in a row of drought. Ugh. However with my health issues (very stable right now, thank goodness) nothing seems that terrible. Just get me through this!

Laurie in Mpls. said...

Tickmeister, that's good to know! Considering that this has sounded like a whole new deal (colony collapse), just knowing that the bees have survived similar issues in the past helps.

I have hardy bamboo in my front yard, and once it flowers it is just ALIVE with all the buzzy flying things around. Every sort of bee and wasp I've ever seen in the city as well as several sorts of fly-like critters. It's pretty awesome. :) And the bees adored the eggplant last year. I might plant them again even though I really didn't get much off of it just because the flowers were so pretty and the bees enjoyed them so much. Ditto with the lamb's ear -- the flower stalks really do just look kind of dumb, but the bees go nuts for them. Just have to keep them trimmed away from the front door. Sometimes my clients don't understand.

As I understand, there are motions underway to get Minneapolis to allow in-city beekeeping. St. Paul already does. So I'm hoping we can ooze that past the council. *I* don't have the inclination, but I'll support those that do!

Pangolin said...

I live in Butte County California which is pretty much ground zero for bee problems due to the almond orchards. Wild bees here are doing fine and I'm monitoring several wild hives in "bee trees" as well as native bees.

Keep your bees happy by providing habitat and year-round flowers is the best way to ensure pollination. In particular bee balm, lemon balm, yarrow, thyme, rosemary and mints.

To get your bees when you want them you need to feed them year-round. This strategy comes with the added benefits of flowers and herbs that you can enjoy.

Healing Green said...

On my property we have many many bees, of all sorts. At the beginning of the season we even had a swarm of honeybees on every single plant, flower, rock and inch of air space in my whole yard. They seemed to be looking for a new home, and since I have a toddler, I asked them politely to please nest in the woods next to our property, letting them know they were welcome to our flowers anytime. The next day the swarm was gone, but I know they stuck around because I would see them en masse whenever certain plants were flowering, like our dogwood tree. We also have a lot of small bumblebees, and of course the usual wasps, etc... I have a suspicion that the honeybees are not collapsing so much as revolting, and leaving colonies to go wild en masse. Why? Maybe they don't appreciate their honey being stolen, I don't know. But I do know that all the sources I've read say that the beekeepers are not finding dead bee bodies, just empty hives.