Where Are the Bees?

Mar 27, 2012

Warm weather has promoted fruit trees in Michigan to bloom four or five weeks ahead of schedule.  That means that bees need to be here early, too, but most of the bees that pollinate orchards in Michigan are still wintering in Florida or are busy pollinating crops in California.

Mark Longstroth is an educator with Michigan State University Extension.  He tells WKAR’s Gretchen Millich that fruit growers may not be able to get bees here in time.

MARK LONGSTROTH: Most of the larger growers, and many of the smaller ones, have contracts with commercial beekeepers. The commercial beekeepers make money by renting the hives, so to speak. The fact that we had that June-like weather in the middle of March meant that the fruit trees moved very, very quickly and they began to bloom. It was very hard for the commercial beekeepers to get bees here.

GRETCHEN MILLICH: Where are the bees now?

LONGSTROTH: Many of the bees in North America go to California for almond bloom, and then many of the Michigan beekeepers will send their bees to Florida and let them over-winter in Florida. It’s much milder there, and so they will re-queen the colony.   They'll put a new queen in the colony, and that queen will establish herself as the new queen of the colony and lay eggs and have larvae and have new workers. They don’t want to move those hives with new queens in them because the hives are not ready for the trauma of being moved.

MILLICH: I understand that honey bees are quite intelligent and that they communicate with each other in a very sophisticated way.  Does it disrupt their communities to move them to another state much earlier than usual?

LONGSTROTH: Not really.  Generally, the bees are a little disoriented when they first come out of the colonies in a new spot, but they orientate themselves pretty quickly to where this hive is sitting and how it’s sitting in relation to the sun. They generally do most of their navigation from the hive by dead reckoning, knowing where they’ve flown from the hive and returning. Usually beekeepers like to pack up the colony and move them at night when the workers have returned for the day and they’re in the hive, and they will pack them up and move them.

MILLICH: So what I’m finding out here is that farmers have to order their honeybees and have them trucked in, but don’t we have honeybees here in Michigan that are ready to do the job?

LONGSTROTH: Yes, we do, and typically in a normal Michigan winter we might lose a fair number of bee colonies to winter cold, but we had such a mild winter here in Michigan that the bees actually did quite well. The beekeepers in Michigan have strong colonies and are helping other beekeepers that are short of hives, but we simply don’t have enough hives right now for what we need. As time goes on we’ll get more and more hives, but one of the problems is that because the bloom was so rapid, the peaches that opened here in Southwest Michigan, they’ve bloomed and they’re finished blooming. If they didn’t get bees when those flowers were open, they only get the pollination that they got from the wild bees or other pollinators that were in the field when those orchards began to bloom.

MILLICH: So, what happens if we don’t get enough bees here in Michigan in time?

LONGSTROTH: If we don’t get a freeze, then we may have a very light crop simply due to lack of pollination. Rather than a full crop, a grower might be looking at a very light crop of maybe only half or maybe 25%, simply because those flowers weren’t pollinated when they were open.