Honey bees pollinating a blueberry field

Lessons from our first blueberry pollination contract

We have just finished our first commercial blueberry pollination contract, an accidental affair that has left us both yearning for more and wary of this necessary side of beekeeping.

On the one hand this was a perfect experience; we helped a partnership of four commercial growers at least partially satisfy their deep need for bees, and we got some revenue for supplies we will need to buy over the coming year. And, to boot, a small amount of blueberry gold, the first honey crop of the year.

On the other hand, the idea of opening our bees to the possible exposure of chemicals, theft or a horde of other undefined – and ultimately irrelevant – fears kept us up at night.

When we took our first course in beekeeping, provincial apiculturist Paul van Westendorp smirked and remarked that we shouldn’t get “too lovey-dovey” with our bees. We had to remember, he said, that these are livestock and while we should treat them gently and with respect we shouldn’t anthropomorphize them or give them human qualities. That was a good first lesson. I am going to recount some other valuable lessons we just learned as a result of our first paying pollination contract.

We had half of our 22 hives on a small acreage in Richmond when we got a call from a panicked Pitt Meadows commercial grower desperate for anything we could supply. He and his three partners were caught in the same jam facing hundreds of Fraser Valley farmers who found there’s a shortage of about 4,000 pollination-strength hives this year. As a result, beekeepers had raised the price from about $80 last year to $100 and growers were paying that without question. The main reason for the shortage: a tough winter for beekeepers, many of whom reported high mortality rates.

One of our honey bees getting to business on a blueberry grower's farm in Pitt Meadows. Photo: Jeff Lee

One of our honey bees getting to business on a blueberry grower’s farm in Pitt Meadows. Photo: Jeff Lee

We hadn’t planned to do commercial pollination this year because we’re still small. That was lesson No. 2: growers will take even a few hives if you can spare them.

Blueberries are the most valuable pollinated crop in B.C.; in 2011, it represented $150 million in farm gate value, according to the B.C. government, compared to half that for apples. The B.C. Honey Producers have also published an interesting report on the growth of pollination services and honey bee production.

Our new clients have three strains of blueberries on 18 acres, early Duke, the main Bluecrop and later-blooming Elliott, staggered to help spread their crop out over the season. They’d pretty much given up hope of pollinating  the Dukes, but were hoping our bees could give them a good set on the Elliotts, located at one end of their field.

Although they really need at least 36 hives for a good field-wide set, we could only spare 10 and they gladly took them at $95 each. We observe the industry standard of 8-4-1 for pollination strength:  that rule says that each hive used for pollination should have eight frames covered in bees, four frames of brood in all stages and one laying queen. It’s a voluntary standard observed by ethical beekeepers to ensure the farmer gets a good set. That set often means the difference between his profit and loss. I read somewhere that a blueberry grower can get up to three times his production per acre with proper pollination. That’s thousands of dollars in profit for an investment of a $100 rental fee.

Or, another way of looking at is that if we don’t make sure our hives are at proper strength, we may lose a C-note, but the farmer loses ten times that.

We used a number of other resources to guide us, including this advice from the Canadian Honey Council. Peter Awram of Honeyview Farms, the largest commercial beekeeper in the province, also has a great handout sheet for beekeepers and growers alike.

We were extraordinarily lucky to find, as our first commercial contract, four men willing to work closely with us and to assure us our bees would come to no harm. They, in turn, were so grateful for whatever we could supply that they automatically committed to bringing us back next year at full strength and have also lined up other growers who will take any bees we have.

We did a site visit before we ever moved the bees, not only to assure we could get in with our two-wheel drive truck, but also to make sure these were farmers we could trust. It was easy access, with dry grass verges and a high locked gate. No midnight towing a bogged truck with a tractor!

We impressed upon them the need to communicate with us at all times; if they needed to spray their crop they had to let us know well in advance. They, in turn, needed to size us up to make sure we could handle their needs.

We walked the field together, discussed the optimum placement for the hives, and at the end they gave us a key to the gate so we could come and go as we pleased. They paid half up front and the other half when we finished. We also had a pollination contract that stipulated our mutual obligations.

Our first little bit of blueberry gold. We retrieved a dozen or so frames of capped honey by the end of our pollination contract, without compromising the supply for the bees themselves. Photo: Jeff Lee

Our first little bit of bonus blueberry gold. We retrieved a dozen or so frames of capped honey by the end of our pollination contract, without compromising the supply for the bees themselves. Photo: Jeff Lee

In the end, it was such a perfect relationship that when the weather turned wet and they had to prepare to spray a fungicide right at the end of the bloom, they warned us a day in advance and we retrieved the bees without incident.

There were many lessons we learned in this. Some quite by accident, and some that taught us to be far, far better prepared.

Here are a few:

1. Meet your grower well in advance. Walk the site, know where best to place your hives so the farmer can work his rows with machinery and your bees won’t get accidentally sprayed. Understand what kinds of sprays he may use, and when.

2. Have clear communication with the farmer about his expectations, and yours in return. We found our farmers thought the hives had to surround the field, rather than our preference to locate them to one side on a wide verge near a water source. They were happy with the change.

3. Write a pollination contract stipulating what you each will do. The B.C. Agriculture Ministry has a blank one here. In our case we wrote our own that also included our promise to carry liability insurance, an addition we feel strongly about and bought through the B.C. Honey Producers’ Association as part of our annual membership.

4. When it comes time to move the bees, be prepared. Although we survived the pre-dawn move to the farm, we forgot to bring enough pallets. We’d closed the bees in and loaded them the evening before, but some of the entrances were leaky and guard bees gave us hell. Bring duct tape for the corners!

5. Carry lots of tie-downs. There’s nothing like having a box crack open when you’re moving it. We use ratchet straps for all our hives and keep half a dozen more for strapping them tight to the truck box or trailer floor. We could even move the hives by lifting the straps, without fear of accident.

An example of the QR codes we use to keep track of our hives. We use Beetight, an English-based tracking system that is easy to use with our iPhones. There are others available too, such as HiveTracks. Photo: Jeff Lee

An example of the QR codes we use to keep track of our hives. We use Beetight, an English-based tracking system that is easy to use with our iPhones. There are others available too, such as HiveTracks. Photo: Jeff Lee

6. Try to use interchangeable, standard equipment. We had three different types of bottom boards and lids. It meant we had to fiddle around with the straps more than we liked. We’re too small to use a forklift, so everything had to be hand-bombed. We used a low trailer for retrieving the hives, and it was easier on our backs.

7. Mark your hives so that when keeping notes you actually know what you’ve done. We now use QR codes on each hive, but several in the field were unmarked and we mixed them up in our records.

8. Be respectful of the farmer. He’s running a business just as you are. Close and lock gates as you use them. Clean up after yourself. Treat his crop as gently as you want him to treat your bees. We accidentally ran over a young blueberry bush at the end of one very tight row and immediately called our farmers to offer to replace it. They  graciously declined.

9. Retrieve the bees on your own terms. We’d already taken a small crop of blueberry honey off, but we left the hives there a week or two longer than necessary because the fine weather had brought blackberries into bloom. But when the weather turned wet the lead farmer called us to get them because he planned to spray fungicide. We had to make a midnight run in rainy weather in the middle of a busy week.

10. Use red-lit flashlights. We discovered the painful way that bees hate to be woken up at night and as we put the ventilation screens in place the guards escaped again and gave us more hell. Ripping down your pants in the middle of the night to get that one angry bee out of a pant leg may sound funny now, but Amanda still has the welt days later.

Do you have any other useful tips for us? Love to hear them!

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