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Pollination of the Wild Blueberry Crop

Spring is a very important time for Wild Blueberry farmers in Maine, Eastern Canada and Quebec where the Wild ones grow. This is when migratory beekeepers move tens of thousands of beehives into farmers’ fields to perform the invaluable service of pollinating their crop just as it is flowering.
This year, Wild About Health caught up with third generation Maine Wild Blueberry farmer Greg Bridges to get the latest buzz about this year’s pollination season on his Wild Blueberry fields.
Every year, Greg 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. Last month, there was reason to be nervous with morning temperatures cold enough to freeze blossoms where Bridges fields are followed by a week with 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 period would go by without being pollinated. Bridges said the other issue was too much rain would drown the plant roots.  
“You grow up thinking in seasons, with each season bringing a different task at hand,” said Bridges. “Our family has always taken the low risk approach of not as many inputs. We are trying to pass the farm on to the next generation by keeping the plants and fields healthy. Since it takes two years to get a crop off of a piece of ground you are wishing for just the right amount of sun, rain and a snowy winter.”
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. http://www.pressherald.com/news/blueberries-grow-like-wild-this-year_1969-12-31.htmlAs 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 a couple weeks ago. 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.  
“When you see the plants above the surface what you don’t see is the complicated root system that is under the ground,” said Bridges. “Some of these plants are hundreds or maybe thousands of years old. I often wondered if you whispered or tickled a plant on one side of the field would the plant on opposite side hear or feel it?”
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.
Commercial Pollination Service
Karen and Lincoln Sennett  owners of Swan’s Honey delivered 2000 colonies to Wild Blueberry fields in Maine this past May. 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 having more 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.  
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 weakened 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 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.”

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