Every year in spring, the fruit farmers in South Tyrol welcome beekeepers from the region who put up their hives in the apple orchards. It’s a win-win cooperation: The farmers are happy about their well-pollinated apple blossoms – and the beekeepers about their strong colonies.
bees or more make up one colony in early summer.
W hen the humming gets loud among his fruit trees in April, a satisfied Klaus Weissenegger is rubbing his hands. He wanders around between his trees and happily observes the black dots buzzing around the apple blossoms. He loves the sound. “The louder the humming the more bees are on the move,” says the 42-year-old farmer. “And the more bees, the better the harvest.”
That’s why in springtime, the industrious insects are more than welcome at his orchards in Bolzano. Because during the flowering season, they are busy pollinating his apple trees: While the bees suck nectar from the blossoms, some pollen always gets caught in their hair. They carry it to the next blossom – and that’s all it takes to pollinate the blossom – and apple can grow.
When it comes to pollination, bees are by far the best carriers of pollen: “I could rely on wind or other flying insects, but the apples only grow nicely and round after pollination through bees,” says Weissenegger. “A lot of pollen gets caught in the bees’ hair and our fruit can only grow best if there’s a lot of cross-pollination.”
of nectar can be carried by a bee.
Weissenegger knows what he is talking about. His father was also a fruit grower. As a child, he played between the trees and enjoyed the sweet apples in summer. For 18 years now, he has been running his own operations in Bolzano: one of the region’s largest fruit orchards. He grows around 4,000 tons of apples every year on 50 hectares, including popular varieties such as Braeburn, Gala and Pink Lady. His homeland is ideal for growing apples: The protected location amidst the Alps with a mild climate and low amounts of rain has turned South Tyrol into the largest uninterrupted cultivation area within the EU.
Every year in April, when his trees are in full bloom, the bees come home to Weissenegger. Beekeepers come around with their colonies and set up their hives in the orchards. Around 120 colonies are needed to reach a good pollination performance on a farm of 50 hectares. And not only on this farm: In the whole region, beekeepers bring their bees to the farmers during the flowering season. It’s a win-win partnership: The farmers are happy about their well-pollinated apple flowers – and the beekeepers about their growing colonies.
That is why Werner Rungaldier also puts up his hives on the fruit orchards in spring. The hobby beekeeper has been working with bees for eight years now. “The apple trees on the orchards in the lower ranges start to blossom quite early in the year, offering a real feast of sweet nectar and pollen rich in protein to the worker bees,” he explains. “That helps the worker bees to collect enough pollen to feed their brood inside the hive.”
Werner Rungaldier’s colonies thus grow from around 10,000 to at least 40,000 bees in spring. For years, he has been taking his bees to the same farmer. “We know each other well and keep close contact,” he says. “Such a trustful relationship is important for our cooperation.” The reason: The fruit farmers have to spray their trees with fungicides and insecticides to protect them from diseases and pests and to guarantee a good harvest.
The usage of crop protection agents is subject to strict regulations on country and EU level. This applies especially to crops that attract bees with their blossoms. Products that may be a health hazard for bees may only be applied to such crops before and after the flowering season.
To protect the bees, flowering weeds such as dandelion will also be cut down before a product that may affect bees is applied to these crops. Products classified as bee-friendly may also be applied during the flowering season whenever a thorough risk assessment by environmental authorities has come to the conclusion that this will pose no threat to bees.
But some of these products may pose a threat to bees. That’s why the farmers may only apply them before and after the flowering season. Every year, a private consulting organization for fruit farmers in South Tyrol sets the dates for the flowering season. They vary according to the variety and the altitude. If the farmers don’t stick to these requirements the crop protection products may be harmful to the bees’ health and weaken the colonies.
“Thanks to continuous research, we have agents today that are safe for bees and which farmers may use during the flowering season as well,” Rungaldier explains. The hobby beekeeper works as a research technician at Bayer CropScience in Bolzano, where he develops crop protection products for fruit orchards and vineyards. He is convinced: “If the fruit farmers strictly adhere to the legal requirements for the application of crop protection products, they pose no risk to bee colonies.”
Neonicotinoids under discussion
Neonicotinoids are a group of highly effective insecticides, mostly used in seed dressing but also in leaf treatment. During the past years, they have several times been subject to discussion as a possible cause for single occurrences of bee losses. Numerous studies on this topic could, however, not provide evidence for a causal relation.
The German Bee Monitoring, for instance, has been thoroughly monitoring more than 1,000 bee colonies throughout Germany since 2004, looking into all factors that may affect the insects’ health. The results clearly show that there is no correlation between the pesticide residues detected in beehives and the loss of bee colonies. Only very few incidents of very low residues of neonicotinoids could be found.
In addition, there was no proof of a relationship between colony losses and crops extensively treated with neonicotinoids such as canola. Comparable monitoring projects in other countries come up with similar results.
It’s impossible for fruit farmers in South Tyrol to completely do without crop protection, because plant diseases keep giving them a hard time. The most serious threat is apple proliferation, causing immense harvest losses of up to 30 percent. Leaf suckers transmit malicious bacteria causing the disease and heavily affecting the trees. “Two out of the three active ingredients fighting leaf suckers pose a threat to bees,” knows Weissenegger. “So you don’t have a lot of choice.” If apple proliferation occurs, the farmer has to decide: “If only some of the trees are infected, he may cut them down.” But if the farmer has to use insecticides, he must do without the bees for that season.
So far, Klaus Weissenegger has been spared incidents of apple proliferation. This April, thousands of bees are buzzing around his trees once again. And when he listens to this sound, one or two bee stings really don’t matter to him.