March 3, 2006
Bee-utiful vegetable crops
Crops in bloom need the attention of bees, and that's getting harder to find, according to Texas Agricultural Experiment Station's assistant chief apiary inspector.
Bill Baxter of College Station spoke to more than 100 attendees at the High Plains Vegetable Conference in Canyon. He said regardless of the crop, the bee "is very important to all of us."
A die-off of many wild bees and some honey bees due to a parasitic mite infestation has created a need for a commercialized bee industry, Baxter said. Pollination of the nation's crops has beekeepers crisscrossing the U.S.
Each year, 80 to 100 migratory beekeepers come to Texas to take advantage of early pollen production and build their colonies, he said. A majority of the 200,000 colonies they'll set up will be in Southeast Texas to gather pollen from the pine trees.
In April and May, they split their colonies and head north for honey production. But in February and March, California requires almost a million hives for the almond industry.
Crops can require anywhere from a single hive to three hives per acre, and the beekeeper generally gets paid anywhere from $45 to $150 per hive, Baxter said. With this investment, he said, producers and beekeepers need to communicate when drawing up a contract.
"A grower and beekeeper have different concerns, but you have to have communication and consideration," Baxter said.
Determining how many bees and hives to place in a field may take time, he said. A 40-acre field may only require hives around the perimeter.
Larger areas will mean setting hives inside the field. The hives should be placed at least 100 yards apart, and no more than 250 yards of any part of the field should be without a hive, Baxter said.
"You can try different numbers and figure out what works best for your program," he said.
The producer should make sure the requested bee release is timed with the crop's blooming.
All clovers and other blooming plants should be eliminated before the bees arrive, he said.
A bee needs to visit a plant eight to 10 times for a good pollination, Baxter said. "You don't want them spending their time visiting outside plants."
A good queen in a colony will lay 1,000 eggs per day, he said. Worker bees spend the first three weeks inside the colony caring for the brood and the next two to three weeks foraging for nectar and pollen. Then they die, Baxter said.
A thriving colony of bees will have 50,000 to 60,000 bees in it. These bees will be divided among foragers and eight to 10 or more frames or shelves of brood. The brood consists of bees in the egg, larvae and pupae stages. Each frame in the hive with brood will have approximately 2,400 bees on each side, he said.
"Get the beekeeper to show you some broods," Baxter advised. "The heart and soul of the colony are in the bottom two stories of the brood chamber."
If a hive is active, he said, at least 100 incoming bees should be arriving per minute and one-third of them should be carrying pollen sacks on their legs.
"If you don't see any pollen going in, you may have a dead colony," Baxter said. "You can have a colony die out if it's out there a couple of weeks."
Another way to check hive activity is by standing in the middle of the field and listening for a steady hum of bees, he said. The main flight period will be when temperatures fall between 70° F and 90° F.
Above 90° F, the bees will spend time searching for water, Baxter said.
Make sure no chemical spills or chemical mixing takes place in the area, because the bees could mistake it for water.
Pesticides are a major fear for bee keepers. Making sure there is an understanding between both parties concerning pesticide application will help avoid problems, he said.
The beekeeper might have to move the bees for a day or two if spraying.
Another crucial management decision is when to irrigate, Baxter said.
"From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. is the crucial flight time," he said. "You don't want to irrigate at that time. If the bees get wet or the flower is full of water, they go home."
Also, remember to tell the beekeeper where the irrigation system tracks so hives will not be placed in the way, Baxter said. And allow accessibility for the keeper that won't be muddy.