If you like to eat blueberries, apples, almonds and more fruits that require pollination, you can thank a bee. Farmers could not grow these crops without the essential service provided by bees.
« We depend on honeybees for our existence, » says Hail Bennett, 36, of Bennett Orchardsin Frankford, Del, which just opened its fields to pick up visitors for the high season.
Every spring, just as his blueberry bushes are in bloom, Bennett rent lots of bees from a commercial beekeeper. For three weeks, bees buzz around moving millions of grains of pollen in and between flowers to pollinate plants.
“It’s pretty amazing how much work bees have to do,” Bennett says. There are millions of flowers on her six acres of blueberries, and « each flower needs to be visited six to eight times by a bee to be fully pollinated, » explains Bennett as she opens a plump berry to inspect its seeds.
« You want to have at least 15 seeds in the fruit, » Bennett says, watching approvingly as he counts them. « That tells you the flower was adequately pollinated in spring, » he says.
Bennett recalls hearing stories of collapsing bee colonies when he was in high school. All over the country, bees were disappearing from their hives. Now, a new survey of beekeepers find the bees are still struggling.
“For the full year, we estimate beekeepers lost 48.2 percent of their colonies,” says Dan Aurrell, a researcher at Auburn University. bee laboratorywhich collaborates with the non-profit organization, Bee Informed Partnershipto run the survey.
The report covers the period between April 2022 and April 2023 and included 3,006 beekeepers from across the United States. This year’s tally marks the second-highest estimated leak rate since 2010 to 2011, when the survey began tracking annual leaks.
« This is absolutely a concern, » says Aurell. « This year’s loss rates do not equate to a massive increase in settlement deaths, but rather a continuation of worrying loss rates. »
« It’s ugly, » says former USDA researcher Jeff Pettis, of the survey results. “It shows that beekeepers are still faced with a number of challenges,” he says. Beekeepers are finding they have to work harder to maintain their colonies, says Pettis, who is the president of Apimondiaan international federation of beekeepers’ associations.
« A major concern for bees is the Varroa miteIt’s a small pest that feeds on bees and makes it difficult for them to stay healthy. It shortens their lifespan, says Pettis. native to Asia, and Pettis says beekeepers can use organic acids and other synthetic products to protect their bees.
Pettis keeps bees on the east coast of Maryland, where he has had some success using them formic acid to treat against vorroa mites. « Organic acids are effective, but they take time and money, » says Pettis.
Other challenges bees face are beyond any beekeeper’s control, says Pettis. They include pesticide use, a loss of nutrient sources for honey bees due to urbanization, or land-use practices that lead to fewer and less diverse food sources, such as wildflowers.
There’s also a concern that may seem hidden in plain sight: climate change. « When you overlap with the big, broad issues of climate change, bees are really struggling, » says Pettis.
Blueberry farmer Hail Bennett says he wants to be a good land steward. He has invited an amateur beekeeper, Steven Reese, to settle on his farm, which may help some of their visitors understand how crucial bees are to his business and to agriculture in general.
Reese, 60, is retired from the Air Force and now works as a civilian for the military. He says beekeeping is relaxing for him, almost a form of meditation. He says it AND he works to manage his bees, but has been able to maintain his numbers and grow his colonies, dividing the hives when some of the bees die. « If you left them wild, so to speak, and allowed them to survive on their own, that would be a much higher loss rate, » so it’s worth it, he says.
Reese says bees never cease to amaze him, with their beehive instincts and sophisticated ways of organizing themselves. « They communicate in phenomenal ways, » she says.
For farmer Hail Bennett, the bee is essential. Without bees, there are no blueberries.
« It’s important for people to understand and remember where their food comes from, » says Bennett.