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An essential beesness

Healthy pollinating industry is critical to the success ofmost food crops.

By Judie Steeves A

lthough the B.C. honey bee industry itself is just a small part of the annual agricultural economy, contributing $10 or $12 million, the value of the crops the insects are required to pollinate is estimated at $250 million. “The bee may not seem important, but it’s the spark plug of agriculture,” notes provincial apiarist Paul van Westendorp with the agriculture ministry.

Bees are essential to the pollination of food crops. It’s estimated that about a third of our food plate is dependent on honey bees for pollination, including tree fruits.

For that reason, there’s ongoing concern about a decline in bees. Early indications are that bees in most of the province overwintered well, with below average winter mortality, he says.

The exceptions are on Vancouver Island, particularly in the Cowichan Valley, and in the Creston Valley, where extremely high losses have been reported. As yet, he said it isn’t known why.

Information gathered from a provincial bee survey are still being received and compiled, but these are some of the initial findings, he said. Most fruit crops, except strawberries and grapes, are in need of bee pollination. “They can’t move on their own, so they need mobile pollinators,” he says of tree fruit blossoms. Plant sex is a complicated thing, since it’s generally reliant on insect pollinators.

Commercial growers would be foolish not to rent bees to pollinate blossoms, says van Westendorp. Science has shown clearly that bees are important to good production, he adds.

Growers can’t rely on wild pollinators such as bumblebees. There simply


Beekeeper Bob Chisholm has hundreds of hives in his Kelowna operation.

aren’t sufficient numbers.

While there might be a few dozen in a nest of bumblebees in spring, a hive of honeybees would already have 25,000 to 30,000 in it, so there is a very large number out foraging in the berry fields and pollinating those crops. In summer, a hive would grow to 40,000 or so bees. “It’s a super- organism that expands when food is available and contracts when food is scarce,” explains van Westendorp. It’s still a mystery how the hive decides who disappears during the scarce periods.

Bob Chisholm has 250 to 300 hives he operates from his Kelowna bee yard, and all of his “girls” are working during blossom season, pollinating in valley orchards.

Once they’ve done their job pollinating tree fruits, Chisholm moves his hives to different areas to forage because they specialize in selling single nectar honeys such as fireweed and clover at the farmers’ market. More than half his hives spend the summer in the Cariboo, while others go to places like Lumby where there is good forage.

Because he moves his hives outside Kelowna for forage, he’s not concerned about local fields being paved over, but he says if he was depending on his own back yard it might be quite another story.

He admits that bees can’t get nectar from asphalt and notes that without bees people had better get used to eating nothing but gruel. Or, gruel with

British Columbia FRUIT GROWER • Summer 2010

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