By Rosalie I. Tennison
Honey bees are valuable to both bee keepers and other farmers.
Keeping bees is a way of life for many beekeepers, but these busy little insects also help out the neighbours by pollinating their crops. Unfortunately, growers who do not keep bees rarely understand how their neighbour’s bees are having a helpful effect on their farm. As a result, they might spray insecticides too close to the hives, causing damage to the population.
It is well-known that bees are good for the environment and that their pollination activities are beneficial for many crops. In Manitoba, where canola is a major crop, bees may increase yield by five percent or more, while the production of other crops, such as some fruits and clovers, for example, are virtually dependent on managed bees. Most growers can do the math on what such an increase can mean to the bottom line, but David Ostermann, who works with honey bee and alfalfa leaf cutting bee producers as pollination apiarist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, says the value of pollination by managed bees is nearly $100 million in that province. Because bees will travel in a two mile radius from the hive, growers in all directions could reap the benefits.
Sadly, insecticide designed to reduce insect pests in fields can also reduce the bee population, so it is wise for growers to be aware of neighbouring hives when planning their applications. As well, it would be helpful for beekeepers to let the neighbours know where hives are located. Communication is key in
keeping bees working and pests in check, which is not usually a problem in small communities where most know what the neighbours are doing.
There are some wrinkles, however. “Often beekeepers put their hives on someone else’s farm with that farmer’s permission,” says Ostermann. “If the landowner now needs to spray for insect pests, the bees may be harmed.” But, Ostermann suggests growers who need to spray near bees could, if possible, choose a product and a spray time that are less harmful to bees.
A beekeeper from Miami, Manitoba, says he always informs his neighbours and local crop inputs companies where he is setting out his 700 hives. “I send out a bee yard map showing the placement of my yards and explaining the bees’ foraging territory,” says Ian Steppler. “I ask for notice if spraying is going to be done during the bees’ foraging hours and then I can remove the yard. Before I started sending out yard maps, many people didn’t know there were bees in the area, but now that my neighbours know, there have been fewer losses. I hope that trend continues.”
A little consideration from neighbouring growers is all that beekeepers require, especially since their bees are providing a service in the area. Ostermann says a little bee knowledge can reduce the risk. He says since bees do most of their work during the main part of the day, when it is sunny and warm, spraying in early morning or late evening will reduce the risk to bees because they are less active at those times.
Steppler says another concern related to insecticide application is the bees bringing contaminated pollen back to the hive and feeding the new bees. This can have the affect of killing the hive from the inside out. Steppler, who crops 2000 acres, refrains from spraying his own land unless there are high thresholds of insects and then he practices what he preaches, spraying late in the day and using products that leave minimal residue.
“Communication is important,” says Ostermann. “Our office maintains a record of where hives are and growers can call us to learn if there are any in their area.” But, neighbours talking to neighbours is the quickest and most direct way of ensuring the safety of both crops and bees. Many growers use crop protection guides to help them decide what insecticides to use to control pests while minimizing the impact on bees and the environment – this is particularly important when there are pest outbreaks.
Steppler believes the entire issue requires education because he thinks many growers do not realize how important bees are to their crops. He says with so much natural bee habitat lost to crop production, the wild bee population may be lower than needed to pollinate all the crops. He sees his hives as offering a free pollination service to his neighbours and, for that, he appreciates their respect of his hives. He wishes he had more facts in hand that he could share with the farmers who do not keep bees to show how useful they are, but limited research has been done to prove yield results due to proximity to open pollinated field crops, such as canola and sunflower. Since these crops pollinate themselves, he says, it is difficult to measure yield increase due to bees and their effect on seed set and seed quality.
“We know a lot of yield and crop quality can be attributed to honey bee pollination,” says Steppler. But, knowing and proving are two different things in the scientific world of agriculture, and Steppler regrets not having the research facts to back up his knowledge.
Most provincial beekeepers’ associations have some information on bees and pollination on their web sites that growers might find helpful, according to Ostermann. There are active associations in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario that can be found using most search engines.
Ostermann suggests growers check for honey bees when they are checking their fields for insect pests. If many bees appear to be visiting the crop, perhaps they need to adjust their spray plans. It is a matter of working together so all involved can have production success. In the end, good communication and understanding among all parties will keep the bees making honey and the crops producing.
Bee friendly advice
1. Do not spray crops in bloom.
2. Spray in late evening or early morning when bees are less active.
3. Do not spray when windy.
4. Choose insecticides that are less toxic to bees.
5. Communicate with beekeepers about spray plans.