Bees – June 2021

A good fall harvest depends on a successful growing and pollination season, and cranberry growers, like many fruit growers, rely on honeybees and bumble bees to cross pollinate blossoms. Production and yield is directly tied to good pollination and subsequent fruit set. In addition, pollinators are important to native plants, which provide food and cover for numerous wildlife species, as well as helping stabilize the soil and improve water quality. One of the more important elements in the Pine Island Integrated Crop Management (PIICM) program is ensuring adequate pollination; flowers that are not visited by bees rarely produce fruit. To this end, we work with several New Jersey beekeepers to temporarily install hives during the bloom period, usually at the end of May/beginning of June depending on the weather.

Timing is key; our team waits until a bog is at about 20 to 40% bloom so the bees have enough to immediately start pollinating. This is important because cranberries are actually a lot of work for honeybees. On a cranberry plant, the anthers (the pollen-bearing part of the stamen) are shaped very differently from most other flowers, having an opening at the end of the anther, rather than splitting open to expose the pollen. This means getting the pollen out requires extra work by the pollinator. While some believe that honeybees are not as efficient at this task, single visits by pollen foraging honeybees can be enough to elicit fruit, especially in areas where weather during bloom is warm. Research has shown that honeybees are competent at pollinating cranberry flowers as long as the weather remains satisfactory, according to the USDA.

“We usually try to have two colonies per acre,” says manager Mike Haines. “This year I’m experimenting a little and bumped it up to 2.5 in higher producing areas; I might not do it next year but it seems worthwhile to try at least once.”

He also had high praise for one of our beekeepers, Rob Harvey of Harvey’s Honey, who dropped his first colonies with us last night: “Rob’s awesome; he’s easy to work with and the bees look really good this year. We already see them out working.”

Harvey’s has worked with Pine Island off and on for a long time, and they’ve always been a great operation. From their website:

Farmers along the entire east coast depend on our bees to pollinate their crops. Harvey’s Honey also manufactures quality hives and provides beeswax for hobbyists and industry.

“My dad used to provide bees for Pine Island, but for a while some anticipated changes in state regulations meant we didn’t have the volume to really work with local farmers,” Rob says. Those changes never came to pass, though, and we started working with Rob again about eight years ago. “We’ve had some blueberry honey this year, which came out better than it did last year, and that makes bees for cranberries look better. It’s looking good for cranberry honey this year, too!” While some places will collect honey while the bees are working, Rob lets them do their thing till the very end. “Our job is to let the bees work,” he says. “I’m not going to make them mad; once they’re done, we’ll extract the honey at our home farm. Until then, it’s better to let them do their job!”

“Rob is legit,” Mike says. “We all really appreciate working with him. He understands what we have to do, and he takes good care of his bees; they do good work.”

We also don’t rely entirely on our hard-working beekeepers; native pollinators such as bumblebees are also valuable to us, and bumblebees will work in wet and/or windy conditions. Bumblebees have other advantages: they work faster, visiting many more flowers per minute. Their large size lets them carry huge pollen loads, allowing longer foraging trips, and achieving better contact with flowers. Larger deposits of pollen promote pollination as well as the formation of more uniform and larger fruit. Perhaps most importantly, bumblebees are naturally attracted to cranberry plants!

Frost – 2021

One of the toughest things cranberry growers do is managing springtime frost conditions. In the spring, there is a danger to the crop when the temperature drops. Typically, a cranberry bog is built at a lower level than the land immediately surrounding it and the bog temperature can drop ten to fifteen degrees lower than the uplands. These conditions make monitoring bog temperature a top priority once the winter water comes off. It’s no exaggeration to say there would be no crop if we didn’t watch for frost on the bogs.

The first step is monitoring the temperature. Each bog has a thermometer (usually located in the coldest section) that requires frequent checking throughout the first part of the night. Once the temperature drops to between 33 and 35 degrees Fahrenheit (depending on the stage of growth), it’s time to turn on the pumps. More than forty years ago we used to flood the bogs to prevent frost damage; we now use sprinklers instead. When the water from the sprinklers freezes on the vines, it controls the temperature well enough to keep them from harm. It’s also necessary to check the surrounding reservoirs and canals to make sure that the water supply is sufficient to supply the pumps. That can take some time, and doesn’t always need to be done all at once. Depending on location and conditions–is the bog surrounded by woods? Where is the wind coming from? Is the sky clear or overcast?–some will be started earlier than others.

In recent years we’ve moved to an automation process to make this easier on our team, with a combination of automated and analog thermometers for optimal monitoring. The automated thermometer gives us the initial indication that the temperature is dropping. When it hits the first threshold, it sends the notification, and that’s when members of the frost team head out to look at the analog thermometers.

Holding the winter flood until later in the month means that we’ve not had many frost nights yet, but it won’t be too long now!