By Michael Carmichael
October 2, 2008
It’s a warm summer Saturday morning at the Farmers’ Market in Holland, Mich. Business at Hasselman’s Pure Michigan Honey booth is, to coin a phrase, buzzing. Shoppers from all over the area rely on Larry Hasselman and his bees to provide honey in a variety of flavors and forms, beeswax candles and the ever-popular “sippin’ strips” – thin, honey-filled straws that only serve to whet your appetite for more.
But Hasselman is not a “hobby farmer” who simply gathers honey from his hives and processes it for Saturday sale. He’s one of a large number of Michigan beekeepers who work at the business of bees full time. Although with Hasselman the goal is strictly honey, many Michigan beekeepers put their little charges to work doing what bees do best – pollinating Michigan’s vegetables, flowers and fruits.
Blueberries are typical of what bees pollinate
Michigan, according to retired Michigan State University professor and entomologist Dr. Roger Hoopingarner, is the country’s largest producer of highbush blueberries, with about 18,000 acres under cultivation. Most of that production comes from five Western Michigan counties: Van Buren, Ottawa, Allegan, Berrien and Muskegon. The predominately sandy soil and high water table in that part of the state contribute to bushes that produce as many as 2,000 to 3,000 blossoms per bush. At a planting density of 870 bushes per acre, that’s 1.75 to 2.6 million flowers. All those blossoms require a tremendous number of bees.
“Blueberry blossoms are really designed for bumble bees,” explains Hasselman. “There are a lot of situations like that, where the plant, flower and type of bee have evolved over thousands of years,” he continues. “On the other hand, honey bees are adaptable and just have to work harder to vibrate the blossom so that the pollen will shake off the flower and onto them.”
He continues: “Bees are drawn to flowers with a high sugar content. That’s why it’s sometimes difficult for the ‘rent-a-bee’ guys to get their hives to pollinate apple trees. Apple trees usually bloom when dandelions do and the dandelions have a naturally higher sugar content than the apple trees – so enough extra hives have to be brought in to make sure that there are too many bees for the dandelions and the excess bees have to settle for pollinating the apple trees as a second choice.”
Hasselman is asked if these apple tree pollinating bees are the source for apple blossom honey. “No,” he says, “varietal honey – the kind that specifies the predominant flower it came from – must be at least 80 percent from that flower. Agricultural inspectors examine the pollen grains on selected bees and if there aren’t enough to meet that standard the producer can be fined or even jailed for false labeling. Most of us Michigan honey producers don’t have the enormous supply of a single flower source needed to supply varietal honey. Instead, we talk more about ‘early spring’ honey or ‘wildflower’ honey – or my preference ‘pure honey made in Michigan by Michigan Bees.’”
Michigan’s “rent-a-bee” (or pollinating) beekeepers are busier than ever. One reason is that feral bees – the once-domesticated honey bees that swarm out of their original hive with a new queen and find a new place to hang their combs, usually in a hollow tree – have been dying off.
“The feral bees used to do more than half of the pollinating of Michigan crops for free,” according to MSU’s Hoopingarner. Partially, he continues, it’s “due to changes in our own blueberry production practices which remove bee forage and suitable habitat.” Additionally, about 20 years ago different types of mites started invading the feral colonies and killing them off.
The mites are a continuing challenge for both types of beekeepers. So are viruses and certain types of beetles. Last year a new danger arose as thousands of bee colonies just disappeared. Bees would fly off in the morning and never return. Called Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD, the cause is still undecided, though there was less evidence of it in Michigan than had initially been reported.
A growing body of evidence, however, points to a common pesticide used in agriculture that was thought to be safe for honey and other bees. A pesticide called Merit, according to a column in the Detroit News by self-proclaimed “Yardener” Jeff Ball, “is a very common insecticide in agriculture because it is systemic and very effective in controlling tough to kill insects such as aphids. Many apple orchards are routinely sprayed with Merit early in the season and then when the honey bees come in to pollinate those trees, they disappear. Now we know that any plant that is treated with Merit and has blossoms that attract bees, those bees will receive a non-lethal shot of Merit.” He concludes: “But it will cause them to lose their ability to find their way back to the hive. It also weakens the bee’s immune system so the bee usually dies of some fungus or virus.”
Once a beekeeper, always one
Even with all of the difficulties they encounter beekeepers such as Hasselman say that bees are in their blood.
“When I was a kid I casually mentioned to my parents one year that I thought it would be fun to keep a hive or two of bees. Next thing I knew I started getting presents of things that I couldn’t imagine the use of – until I realized they were beekeeping supplies. The bees arrived in a package in a spring – and were dead by summer because I just didn’t know anything about beekeeping. I spent the next five years as an apprentice to a beekeeper who kept a thousand hives. I remained with beekeeping as a hobby throughout my working life and, after early retirement, I have somewhere between 100 and 150 hives. Each colony produces around 200 pounds of marketable honey,” Hasselman explains. “The rent-a-bee guys make their money taking the bees from field to field pollinating everything from blueberries and apples to cucumbers. All that travel results in actual honey production of only about 65 pounds.”
Bees and business
“Between 30 and 50 percent of Michigan’s pollinating beekeepers actually travel quite a bit because in the winter they’ll pack up their colonies in special containers and take them to Florida and other states that need more bees than live there year-round,” says Zachary Huang, associate professor of entomology at Michigan State. “That’s good eventually for Michigan consumers, I guess, but it doesn’t do much for our economy.” He’s asked how the contribution of Michigan bees to the state’s economy is measured. “Michigan beekeepers aren’t required to be registered,” he says, “so the bees aren’t either. It’s only when any of the beekeepers want to sell honey that the state takes much notice of them.” So, the best way to measure how Michigan bees are doing is by measuring their productivity – by how the crops they pollinate did over the past year. In the 2005 crop year – the latest for which we have complete reporting – “the value of the primary fruit and vegetable crops that depend on pollination (by honey bees) was approximately $422 million,”, said Huang. All important crops (such as apples, blueberries, cherries, cucumbers [for pickling] and pumpkins) in Michigan depend heavily on honey bees. Therefore,” he continues, “without honey bees to supply pollination services, most fruit and vegetable producers would be forced out of business and Michigan’s agricultural industry would be devastated.” And as for honey itself? 72,000 Michigan colonies produced about 3.96 million pounds, down 10 percent from 2005. Given the effects of weather and other variables, Michigan’s bees seem to be doing quite well.