Lois Ann Dort

Honeybees, a blueberry’s best friend

Chronicle Herald Oct. 23, 2016

The plight of bees in North America is an issue that has entered the general zeitgeist. Most people understand that bees are integral to food production. In their role as prolific pollinators bees are linked to our own survival as a species. It is little wonder that bee survival is top of mind for many ecologically astute citizens.

But, as is often the case, the full impact wild species have on human growth, development and economy is not widely understood. While we can easily think of negative impacts caused by insects, animal or plant pests; disease, predation of livestock and the nuisance of weeds, it is less common for beneficial interactions to come to mind when considering other species. Bees however are an exception.

The increased awareness of pollinators and their role in the human food supply has led to a push to protect and nurture bees.

For many years it has been known that bees pollinate important crops. In Nova Scotia work began in the 1940s and 50s at the Agriculture College in Truro examining the importance of honeybees in the cultivation of wild blueberries. Last month that blueberry-honey bee relationship was further solidified by an announcement that the Atlantic Tech Transfer Team for Apiculture (ATTTA) would work to further consolidate the relationship between honeybees and wild blueberry production in Atlantic Canada.

With such attention being placed on bees and berries it begs the question: what is all the buzz about?

Lauren Park is the current president of the Nova Scotia Beekeepers Association. She’s been in the bee business for eight years and knows the value of honeybees, both commercially and environmentally. In regard to wild blueberry crops she says, “It is my understanding that every blossom needs to be pollinated in order to produce berries. And honeybee colonies have power in numbers. We can easily have 50,000 bees in each honeybee colony and there are many, many thousands of colonies that are used to pollinate blueberry fields in Nova Scotia. There are lots of other effective pollinators including bumble bees and other wild pollinators around Nova Scotia but honeybees are just very effective pollinators because of the power in numbers.”

The Executive Director of the Wild Blueberry Producers of Nova Scotia Association Peter Rideout says honeybees are an integral part of the wild blueberry management program. “The use of honeybees is probably the single most important thing you can do as a producer. It can practically double your crop in terms of having sufficient pollination resources there to pollinate the crop at the right time.”

“We’ve been steadily increasing our use of bees for quite a few years now. Demand for honeybees for pollination has steadily been increasing. I know that growers have found that it is the most important thing they can do so they are always looking for more,” adds Rideout.

Meeting demand and getting bees to berry fields at the right time requires a close relationship between beekeepers and blueberry producers. “We recognize that we have a vital relationship with the beekeepers. Bee health and profitability is equally important to us…their business is closely linked to ours,” says Rideout.

The linch-pin in this mutually beneficial relationship is the health of bees. And that has been under threat in various regions across North America and Europe. Fortunately, Nova Scotia honeybee health is vigorous and the more pressing issue, according to Lauren Park, is overcrowding.  “We see winter losses in Nova Scotia and we have seen some bad winter losses but generally we, especially in the last five years, have been able to keep our winter losses pretty manageable…The issue that we are having with beekeeping in Nova Scotia is overcrowding… Although the news is often ‘we need to save the bees’ which is good, in some counties in Nova Scotia we are at capacity…Areas where it is prime agricultural land are either at capacity or approaching it very quickly.”

Park says there is room for expansion in other areas of the province such as Cape Breton and the South Shore as well as in other Maritime provinces. Currently in Nova Scotia there are more honeybee colonies than ever before. “We have a very strong population of honeybee colonies in the province. That is definitely good news. In addition to having more colonies than we have ever had before in the province we have more beekeepers than we have ever had before in the province by a pretty significant margin. That includes backyard and commercial beekeepers. Beekeeping at all levels has expanded quite dramatically.”

Cameron Menzies, an apiculturist with the Atlantic Tech Transfer Team for Apiculture, sees the increased popularity of beekeeping as beneficial for the wild blueberry industry across Atlantic Canada. The mission of the tech transfer team, he says, is to, “support and build pollination capacity in Atlantic Canada specifically through research, expertise, extension, collaboration and applied research.

“We currently are working to develop fact sheets. We’ll be hosting workshops and we’re working on some applied research of our own to try to aid the beekeeping industry in Atlantic Canada,” says Menzies. Team goals revolve around nutrition, pest and diseases, overwintering, biosecurity, and pollination (particularly of low-bush blueberries).

 Increasing crop production through natural means is the future of sustainable agriculture in Atlantic Canada. The bee-berry relationship is a prime example of beneficial partnerships between agricultural sectors and the environment. It’s an example that is creating a lot of buzz.

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