Pollinator Strength

David Owens, Extension Entomologist; owensd@udel.edu and Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist; gcjohn@udel.edu

Honeybees are used extensively to ensure adequate pollination for vine crop vegetables (cucurbits) and for many fruit crops (apples, berries, etc.). Without good pollination, poor fruit set or misshapen fruit can occur. Most of the honeybees used for pollination are rented from beekeepers. Questions have come up how to know if a colony is strong enough to provide adequate pollination service. A good resource on pollinators, colony strength, and farmer best management practices for pollinator health (including water sources can be found in the MidAtlantic Vegetable Production Recommendations, Section A, pages 21 – 27.

It is important to ensure having enough bees (managed and wild) to avoid having problems with fruit set and misshapen fruit. There are two ways to check the strength of a colony: in-hive inspection and assessing hive traffic at the entrance. In the hive, bees should cover 6 to 8 frames, have 4 to 6 frames of brood and (eggs, larvae, and capped) fill 1.5 to 2 boxes. This is considered a ‘minimum standard.’

An easier, but less accurate method of assessing colony strength is to watch colony entrances in late morning to early afternoon on a calm day. During a 1 minute interval, 50 – 100 bees should be arriving and leaving the colony. While counting bees, be sure to note the presence of bees carrying pollen. They will have large yellow ‘sacs’ on both back legs.

Farmers should work with their beekeeper to ensure that only strong colonies are placed in fields. This has become more difficult in recent years due to higher winter mortality caused by bee pests and pathogens. Stronger colonies provide much more pollination service than one or two weaker colonies. Beekeepers should work with the state apiarist, Meghan McConnell to assess colonies. On the farm side, farmers should read labels carefully and avoid making applications when bees are active in fields. Several insecticides and miticides have pollinator advisory language on them. The fastest way to find it is to download the label from a website such as cdms.net and search the label for ‘bee’ or ‘pollinator’ using Ctrl + F. Insecticides of special concern have a bee in a red diamond to indicate pollinator protection language. Bees can also be affected by fungicide applications. Bees feed their larvae fermenting pollen, and bees rely on the microbes living with them to fend off diseases; fungicides can disrupt the beneficial microbes in the colony. Thus, even fungicides should be timed for periods when bees are not active in the crop. On warm days, bees also forage for water to cool the colony. Having a clean water source within a ¼ mile will benefit the bees. This doesn’t necessarily mean flowing water; large puddles should suffice.

Pollination in Seedless Watermelons and Honey Bee Placement, Bumble Bees as Pollinators

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist; gcjohn@udel.edu

A female watermelon flower will need around 500-1000 pollen grains to be fertilized effectively. This will require a minimum of 8 visits by a honey bee for seeded watermelons. In seedless watermelon more visits will be required. The pollen produced by seedless watermelons is not viable. To fertilize seedless watermelon, pollen must be transferred from viable male flowers in standard or special pollinizer seeded types to triploid seedless female flowers. Because bees foraging in seedless watermelon plantings carry a mix of viable and non-viable pollen, more pollination visits (16 to 24) by honey bees are needed to set fruit.

First planted watermelons are now flowering in Delaware and Maryland. Honey bees should be placed when the first female flowers appear to achieve good crown sets without defects (i.e. prominent lobes or hollow heart). Placement should be made before 10% of plants are in bloom.

The crown set in watermelon is fruit that set on one of the first 8 nodes of the plant. This is often the most profitable, especially early in the season. Poor crown sets in watermelon can occur when there is poor weather during early flowering. Honey bee flights are reduced significantly in rain and when winds are 15 mph or greater. Cloudy weather also reduces bee activity. Honey Bees also do not fly much below 55°F, so on cold mornings, as we often have in June, bee activity will not pick up until later in the morning. Unfortunately, female watermelon flowers open early in the morning, are most receptive before 10 am, and then close in the afternoon.

In addition, in early mornings and during poor weather, bees usually visit plants closest to the hives. As the temperature rises or the weather improves, the bees will forage further from the hive. This means that in bad weather watermelons closest to the hives will have the best set and furthest from the hives will have reduced set.

Another problem that causes crown set reduction is the loss of pollenizer plants due to unfavorable weather conditions during or after planting. This means that pollen will be limiting. Research has shown that were pollen is limiting, fruit numbers will be reduced with distance from a pollen source. In fields with limited pollen, expect reduced fruit set or reduced fruit size in areas where pollenizers are missing.

Watermelon growers can manage crops for improved pollination and fruit set with honey bees by:

  • Increasing the number of honey bee hives for early watermelon crops. A minimum of one strong hive per acre is recommended in general and 2 hives per acre can be justified for early planted fields.
  • Placing hives in several locations in a field rather than just on one edge. While bees will fly over a mile, the best pollination activity is closest to the hives. Hives placed within the field will provide more bee visits to the crop compared to edge placements. Place hives in groups of 4-8 in good locations throughout the field to have even distribution of bees.
  • Having ample sources of pollen by planting pollenizers at a minimum ratio of one pollenizer per every 3 seedless plants. Use the most effective pollenizers as shown by local trials. In-row pollenizers should have limited competitiveness with the seedless melons.

Bumble Bees
Compared to a honey bee, bumble bees are about 10 times more efficient as a pollinator due to their size, the speed at which they transfer pollen, the efficiency with which they gather pollen within various crops, and their increased endurance to fly in adverse weather for longer periods of time. The bumble bee also has the ability to buzz pollinate the flower for pollen, a pollination technique not seen in honey bees. Buzz pollination occurs by bumble bees vibrating the flower by pumping their wings at a certain frequency, to dislodge pollen. Bumble bee foraging activity starts earlier and ends later in the day than managed honey bees and they forage in lower temperatures. Because of these characteristics, fewer bees are needed to achieve the same crop pollination and commercial colonies only have about 200 bees each (800 per quad).

When assessing bumble bee activity, flag out 10 areas in your field and observe each area on three different days during bloom. These observations should last one minute under sunny, windless conditions, between 9 a.m. and noon. Approach each plot with care so as not to disturb the foraging bees. Stand about three feet from the crop to avoid blocking the flight path of the bees. Count and record the number of bumble bees at each flag, then calculate the average for your observations. You should an average one bumble bee per ten flags (0.1 bees per flag) to have adequate pollination.

Bumble bee colonies should be shaded and can be placed along shaded field edges. However, if there are other wild flowers nearby, they will also work in those areas, reducing their field effectiveness. Therefore, when placing bumble bees in watermelons or other flowering vegetable or fruit fields needing pollination, it is recommended that bumble bee quads be placed in the field middles under a shade canopy to have more foraging in the target field. Bumble bees should be placed far from honey bee hives to avoid honey bee pollen theft from bumble bee nests.

 

 

 

 

 

Delaware Beekeepers Association’s Open Hive Event – September 23

Delaware Beekeepers Association’s Open Hive Event

Saturday, September 23, 2017
8:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Delaware State University
Outreach and Research Center
884 Smyrna-Leipsic Road Smyrna, DE 19977

Please join us for educational lectures, demonstrations and a first-hand look inside a real honeybee hive. Get your first exposure to these important and fascinating insects!

(Rain Date September 24, 2017)

RSVP: Kathy Hossler, DBA President, dbapresidenthossler@gmail.com

Or for more information about DSU’s beekeeping program, contact Jason Challandes, jchallandes@desu.edu or 302-388-2241

Cooperative Extension Education in Agriculture, 4-H and Home Economics, Delaware State University, University of Delaware and United States Department of Agriculture cooperating, Dr. Dyremple B. Marsh, Dean and Administrator. It is the policy of Delaware Cooperative Extension that no person shall be subjected to discrimination on the grounds of race, color, sex, disability, age, or national origin.