Tuesday June 04, 2013 | 09:41 AM

Early May is a very important time for wild blueberry farmers in Maine. This is when migratory beekeepers move tens of thousands of bee hives into farmers' fields to perform the invaluable service of pollinating their crop just as it is flowering.

Nearly 85% of the world's supply of Maine’s iconic crop comes from Washington County, where families have been farming the land since the early 1800s.

Every year, 3rd generation wild blueberry farmer Greg Bridges will watch for bloom, set up bear fencing around the bee yards in his fields, and for three weeks keep an eye on the weather and wait. Two weeks ago, there was reason to be nervous with a morning of temperatures cold enough to freeze blossoms where Bridges' fields are, and then last week several days of rain. When it rains for that long with low temperatures it can hurt pollination, because bees don’t generally fly when it’s raining or cold out. The concern was the blossom would go by without being pollinated. Bridges said the other issue was too much rain would drown the plant roots.

This spring, even with a few days of rainy cold weather that kept the bees in their hives, Bridges thinks the crop looks good, maybe as good as last year’s above average harvest, but he’s not making any “official” predictions. As far as Bridges is concerned, Mother Nature has the final say on yield.

“There was good weather last summer during the prune cycle,” said Bridges. “Not too much rain and plenty of sun. We had a good snow cover on this year’s crop last winter. The spring was fairly dry up until last week. This along with a good number of flowers showing on the plants gives a good potential for a good crop.”

“Wild” or lowbush blueberry flowers grow in clusters on the last several inches of the stem. The white, greenish, or pink petals of the flower are united to form a tubular or bell shaped corolla, which hangs open-end downward. According to University of Maine Wild Blueberry Specialist David Yarborough, a lot of bloom is a good indication of potential yield if those flowers are pollinated. That means good weather, no wind over 15 mph, no rain, and sun with temperatures above 50 F.

Bridges started working in the wild blueberry fields when he was 12 raking. After college and the military, he returned to the family farm in Calais, Maine where he manages several hundred acres. This year he rented 148 hives from Swan's Honey in Albion, Maine.

The Pollination Factor
Tony Jadczak, the State of Maine’s Apiarist and Bee Inspector, indicated nearly 70,000 hives of honey bees were used in Maine in 2012, which is a record. In 1982, a little over 11,000 hives were contracted, and by 2002 about 50,000 hives.

A honey bee colony (also referred to as a hive) is usually composed of one queen, 5,000-60,000 workers, and several hundred drones.

According to Yarborough, the acreage wild blueberries grow on in Maine has not increased much in recent years, but the intensity of management has. In his report “Improving Your Wild Blueberry Yields”,  Yarborough observes an increase in honey bee hives used in Maine for pollination is a factor in the increase in the state’s wild blueberry crop from 20 to 90 million pounds over the past 30 years. The more hives, the more bees, the more visits to the wild blueberry plant flowers by bees, the more seeds that form, which results in larger fruit that ripen earlier and more evenly.

For more on what The University of Maine Cooperative Extension recommends as best practices for wild blueberry farmers and pollinating the crop, visit this web page

Commercial Pollination Service
Karen and Lincoln Sennett owners of Swan's Honey delivered 2000 colonies to wild blueberry fields in Maine between May 1 and 10, 2013. They delivered approximately the same number last year. Lincoln said additional factors responsible for the increase in pollinator demand is some acreage has been brought back into production, and the perception that more having hives acts as additional insurance against a wet spring pollination season.

Hive rental is one of the biggest and increasing costs for fruit growers. The size of a colony for pollinating wild blueberry fields is two hive bodies, each with 8-10 frames, for an average rental cost of $100 - 115. This is an increase of $5 over last year and $25 over 5 years.

As for a shortage, Bridges at least has not noticed one “I have never had trouble getting hives. The price keeps going up but there has not been a shortage,” he said. Like an experienced beekeeper I spoke with, Bridges believes the situation earlier this year with pollination of the almond crop is largely contributed to the industry expanding faster than the number of hives available to accommodate it (something growers were supposedly warned by commercial pollinators of years ago, but neglected to pay attention to).

How to tell if the colonies you rented are working? The University of Maine put together this fact sheet. Some quick indications of colony strength can be obtained by watching the flight activity of the bees at the entrance. On a bright, warm day (greater than 55º F and winds less than 15 mph), dozens of bees should be constantly coming and going at each entrance.

Commercial Bumble Bee
Research conducted in 2002 at the University of Maine indicates that a commercially available bumble bee, Bombus impatiens, is an excellent pollinator of wild blueberry in Maine and a good alternative to currently available pollinators. For information on ordering and managing bumble bees please visit here

“There has been some use of bumblebees, mostly for supplementing the honeybees, although there are a few individuals who are using just bumblebees if they have not ordered their honeybees early enough,” said Yarborough. “There are no inspections or permits required for bumblebees so I do not have a have an accurate figure but I expect it is in the hundreds, but I have no way to confirm this. The bumblebees are much more efficient pollinator than the honeybees and will work in cooler and wet weather but there are only a few hundred in the quad vs. a workforce of 20,000 for the honeybee hive, so the honey bee makes up for their inefficiency with higher numbers when the weather is good.”

Honey Bee Health and Native Bees
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), one mouthful in three of the foods you eat directly or indirectly depends on pollination by honey bees. In May, 2012 the USDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a report on honey bee health. The report states that there are multiple factors playing a role in honey bee colony declines, including parasites and disease, genetics, poor nutrition and pesticide exposure. 

Last year, Frank Drummond, Wild Blueberry Entomologist at the University of Maine, received $3.3 million as part of a larger $6.6 million grant-funded regional study of native bees, which are necessary and critical players in fruit and berry crop pollination in the Northeast.  The multi-state research project (involving UMaine, UMass, Cornell University, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, and the University of Tennessee) are working on identifying the best ways to increase native pollinators and reduce dependence on commercial bees by relying more on native bees, which Drummond feels are a largely untapped resource.

“Native bees have been here since the melting of the glaciers and are a natural and permanent aspect of the landscape, but they are poorly understood,” Drummond said. “With the uncertainty and loss of honey bees, the likelihood rises for continued price increases. Some growers already rely upon native bees but also supplement this natural pollination force with commercial bees. Some growers, however, are unaware of the value of native bees.”

Bridges, for his part, is aware of the benefit of local bees, but also sees the value in commercial hives trucked up from Georgia. “Warm temps and strong hives can lead to better crops,” said Bridges. “If the hives show up in a weaken condition the hive will not do the job. By the time the hive gets it strength back the flowers will have gone by. Local bee hives can be quite light coming in to the fields. When the (commercial out-of-state) hives leave after pollination they have gained a lot of weight. We use to use a set of weight scales under one of the hives to see this gain. Some hives could gain 30 to 80 pounds. This means everything. I think there is a benefit to the Maine farmer having southern bees. The hives are stronger since they did not have to battle a long Maine winter.”

With a widely reported decline in the world’s honey bee population, relying on native pollinators – honey bees and bumble bees – may not be optional in the future. For more information on the disappearance of honey bees visit this Penn State site. For what you can do to help the honey bees, check out this PBS piece.  

Wild Maine Blueberry Recipes:
Blueberry Honey Spice Jam by Kate McCarty, food preservation community educator at UMaine Extension. McCarty blogs at blueberryfiles.com.

Makes four to five 8oz. jars

4 cups mashed wild Maine blueberries
1/4 cup bottled lemon juice
2 teaspoons calcium water (included with Pomona's pectin)
1 cup honey
2 teaspoons Pomona's pectin powder (available at Whole Foods and other natural food stores)
½ tsp. to 1 tsp. cinnamon (or spice of your choice, such as nutmeg or ginger)

Measure prepared fruit and lemon juice into a large stockpot. Stir in calcium water.
Measure honey into a separate bowl. Mix pectin powder into honey.

Bring fruit mixture to a full rolling boil (one that cannot be stirred down) on medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Add honey-pectin mixture and stir while cooking to dissolve. Return to a full rolling boil and remove from heat.

Ladle hot jam into 8oz. jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace. Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

Jam can also be frozen in glass or plastic 8oz. jars. After opening, store in the refrigerator and eat within two weeks.

AND

Maine Blueberry and Cream Cheese Scones by Kate Shaffer of Black Dinah Chocolatiers.

The trick with this dough is not to overwork it. That may seem like a tall order when you see how dry and shaggy the dough is before you turn it out on the board. But all I can say is have faith. If you can manage to form it into a disc, get it cut and transferred to the sheet pan without it completely falling apart, you will be rewarded with a gem of a scone.

Makes 8

2 large egg yolks
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold
4 ounces (1/2 brick) cream cheese, cold
1 cup frozen Maine blueberries
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
In a glass measuring cup, whisk together the two egg yolks and enough heavy cream to measure 1 cup. Stir in the vanilla extract. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, soda, and salt.

With grater, grate the cold butter directly into the dry ingredients, and mix in with your hands, rubbing gently.

Cut or tear cream cheese into small chunks, and toss into the dry ingredients. Stir in the frozen blueberries until they are evenly distributed.

Pour on the egg mixture and mix quickly with a large rubber spatula. Add more cream if needed, stirring briskly, with few strokes after any addition. You should have a crumbly mixture that barely qualifies as dough at this point.

Turn the dough onto a cutting board and quickly knead together using a bench scraper to help you form the chunky mixture into a dough that barely holds together. Flatten the dough into disc and cut into 8 triangles with a very sharp knife. Place the triangles on parchment lined cookie sheets, four to a sheet, and sprinkle the tops with sugar.

Bake at for 25 minutes, and then test for done-ness. Rotate the sheets once during baking. The scones are done when they are lightly browned and just firm to the touch.

 

About this Blog

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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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