Working with the 'Girls:' Honey Bees and Hybrid Canola Production
By John Van Dam
Pretend for a moment it is an early afternoon in the middle of July in Colorado's San Luis Valley. I'm on my way to visit the honey bee "girls" in the field. They have been staying with us now for over two weeks and have settled into a predictable routine.
The temperature is in the mid-70s, which means it's a great day to produce hybrid canola seed. As I drive into the bright yellow field, the striped pattern is obvious. The wide bays are canola plants that do not produce pollen. (If there is no pollen available, they just continue to flower and never set seed.) The narrow bands are normal canola plants that produce pollen and set seed. We need to spread that pollen from the narrow bays to the rest of the field to produce hybrid seed. That is what the girls are here to do. After flowering and they are gone, those narrow strips are chopped out.
When I get out of my pickup, I hear how the girls are doing long before I see them. Early in the morning, the sound is quieter and on a rainy day, you don't hear a buzz at all. But when the sun is up, wherever you go in this 120-acre field, you will hear the constant hum of flapping wings. There are special sounds you hear in your lifetime and will not forget -- this is one of them.
As I walk through the field, I am surrounded by bees. They don't care that I am there because they are focused on their job. You see them almost bouncing from flower to flower and then fly off to search somewhere else. Some flower visits are short. A lot of the flowers are empty because they have already been visited by another bee. This is okay with us because landing on the flower and searching for nectar is enough to spread some pollen, but it must be frustrating to the bee.
Occasionally, I am noticed by a bee with an attitude and she will let me know I am not welcome. She will buzz around me and may deliberately fly into me, hitting my chest or back without stinging. Walking away quickly usually does the trick. I have been stung occasionally, but considering the millions of bees we bring in each year for our program, it is hardly worth mentioning. This is the bee's greatest sacrifice to the hive because she dies after stinging. This sting gives off an alarm pheromone that can cause other bees to attack. If it does happen, I cover up where I was stung and leave the field for another day.
We have placed around 12 million bees on this one field to move the pollen. At any one time during the day, about half of them are in the field collecting nectar and pollen for their hive. At the same time, they are moving pollen to male sterile plants so they will set seed. The others are back at the hive taking care of the queen and the nursery, housekeeping or storing what they have collected. It's a female-dominated society that is extremely well organized and efficient.
We bring 12 to 16 flatbed trucks of hives each year for our program and it is estimated that these honey bees will be responsible for about 85 percent of the pollination of our crop. The rest is done through wind and other natural pollinators. Depending on the weather, the pollen and target flowers have a lifespan of only 24 to 72 hours and a third of those hours are dark outside, when the bees don't fly. It requires one pollen grain to produce one seed and there are about 105,000 seeds per pound for an average variety. That means these worker bees will successfully move about 200 million live pollen grains to a receptive flower on every acre of this field.
Minimizing Flight Risk
The San Luis Valley where we produce our hybrid canola is dominated by potatoes, malt barley (no doubt you've seen those Rocky Mountain beer commercials) and high-quality alfalfa hay for dairies. It is a low rainfall region so very little grows without irrigation. Potato flowers produce no nectar so the bees are not interested and the alfalfa is always cut before it starts to bloom. For the bees, canola is the only place to be. Our fields are at least a mile apart to try to discourage visits to another field. Pollen from one field could contaminate another. Bees can travel three miles but won't if there is work nearby. This means we need to manage the bee population. The hives are introduced into a field as the flowering intensifies and we try to take them off the fields in stages as the flowering finishes.
Our bees are supplied by four beekeeping operations that all start their season in the almond orchards of California in February. From there, a portion goes to Texas to forage on the pastures and trees until we call for them. Many of our bees go from the almonds to the southern California oranges, avocados and grapefruits before coming to our valley. It is not an easy life to move and manage bees and our beekeepers do it well. There were some problems with Colony Collapse Syndrome a few years ago but with some management adjustments, the bees we have used in the past two years are the strongest we have ever had in our 15-year production history.
We place many more bees on a field than is necessary to collect honey because we are focused on bee visits per flower for pollination. This means the amount of honey a single hive produces is far less than normal since it is spread over more hives. The honey is not enough to support the beekeepers so they are paid for the six weeks that we need their bees. It is the single most expensive crop input we have to produce hybrid canola seed, but without the bees, our production program cannot exist. Thank you, girls, for your hard work.
John Van Dam is president and general manager of HyValley Seed Management Inc., headquartered in Park River, N.D.