Pollination at Radke's Blueberries

Radke's Blueberries // Wayward Spark

This spring, Henry agreed to pollinate at Radke’s Blueberries, hands down the best U-pick blueberry farm in the Corvallis area if not the entire world (read more about the place here). Blueberry growers generally contract with beekeepers to drop off two or more hives per acre during bloom time. Having honeybees on hand ensures widespread pollination and a good fruit set.

Bumblebees are highly effective blueberry pollinators, even better than honeybees, but commercial blueberry farms often have large fields with only bits of bumblebee habitat around the fringes, and that scale limits the reach of bumblebee foragers and increases the need to bring in honeybees. Radke’s Blueberries, however, in not a particularly big operation, less than ten acres, and Ed Radke is keenly aware of the local bumblebee population, realizing their value as pollinators.

Henry hasn’t taken on too many local pollination contracts because there are some drawbacks (read more here), but Radkes are super nice folks, the location is easily accessible, the farm is surrounded by diverse honeybee habitat with both gardens and natural areas, and the job doesn’t require a large number of hives.

Henry brought out bees to Radke’s on April 14 and picked them up after the bushes were done blooming on May 15.

Radke's Blueberry Farm // Wayward Spark

immature blueberries // Wayward Spark

Radke's Blueberry Farm in spring // Wayward Spark

blooming blueberries // Wayward Spark

beekeeping // Wayward Spark

At this time of year, Henry checks on all his hives, including the ones at Radke’s, weekly. He opens a hive and makes sure it’s “queenright” (with a laying queen). He surveys the queen’s laying patterns and evaluates her for future use as broodstock. If necessary, he’ll boost weaker colonies with frames of brood from another hive, or he’ll requeen a hive if the current queen is failing for some reason. He inspects the pollen and nectar stores and scrapes comb from between the top and bottom boxes. He also looks for signs of swarm preparations and takes necessary steps to prevent swarming.

A “pollination unit” (a hive that’s strong enough to be rented on a pollination contract) for blueberries should have at least 14 frames that are covered with bees and a healthy amount of brood. Henry’s honeybee management program includes tending both small hives (spring swarms or splits) and larger hives (overwintered colonies, most of which got a head start on summer working almonds in California earlier this year). He has a good number of his hives spread out in isolated areas of the coast range to take advantage of good foraging habitat and controlled mating opportunities. His program only leaves a few dozen strong hives for local pollination, so Henry can be fairly selective about who he wants to work with.

queen cells on a frame of bees // Wayward Spark

One of the hives at Radke’s did swarm under surprising circumstances, but overall, Henry has kept swarming to a minimum this year.

comb full of nectar // Wayward Spark

After an early spring build up of worker populations, this time of year is seriously busy for honeybees. There is a lot of nectar and pollen to be had, and workers do their best to take advantage of the bounty. The queens are laying like crazy, and drones are out and about breeding any virgin queens they can find.

Workers carry the abundance of nectar back to the hive and pass it off to “transfer bees” who deposit it into cells. As the cells fill up, the bees cure the nectar by warming it with their own body vibrations, which expends energy and heat, and they simultaneously fan the cells to blow moist air out of the hive. Henry’s hives have a hole in each box instead of just an entrance at the bottom to provide more exit points for fanned air. When the nectar has concentrated sufficiently into honey, it gets capped and stored for later.

I imagine the honey-making process is much like maple sugaring except all that “boiling” is done by body movement. They say it takes about 40 gallons of maple sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup, and I’d assume the ratio of nectar to honey is something similar (though variable for different species).

beekeeping // Wayward Spark

Starting this year, Henry’s been covering each top box on his hives with a layer of canvas. This canvas acts as an inner cover without adding any height to palletized (migratory) hives, and it prevents the bees from gluing down the lids to the top bars of the frames with burr comb. The lines of orangey-yellow stuff are made from deliciously perfumed propolis.

bees on canvas // Wayward Spark

stored honey and pollen // Wayward Spark

The pollen stores seen in the open cells comes in all shades of colors including bright red.

The color variation in the bees themselves is a product of different genetics within a single colony. On her mating flight, a queen will usually mate multiple times, and she can store semen for egg fertilization from a dozen or more drones.

bee hives with homemade skunk guards // Wayward Spark

Ed Radke warned Henry about resident skunks that were likely to prey on vulnerable bee hives. Skunks will often just sit in front of a hive, gobbling up individual bees as they fly in or out of the box, and in that way, they can devastate worker populations. To prevent this kind of predation, Henry DIYed skunk deterrents by doubling pieces of welded wire and lodging the middle section into the gap at the bottom board. Any skunk that tried to lunge at exiting bees would get poked in the face or belly. In the month that the hives were there, Henry didn’t have any trouble with skunks.


beekeeping rig // Wayward Spark

Henry uses his old horseshoeing truck as his mobile beekeeping rig when he drives around doing hive maintenance at his bee yards scattered across in three counties. He transports palletized hives with our larger flatbed truck.

blueberry pollination // Wayward Spark

From the looks of things, Radke’s Blueberries will have a whole lot of good fruit starting in July, and you can be sure that I’ll be there early and often, picking way more than my fill. We are down to our last couple bags of frozen blueberries from last summer, so I sure am looking forward to fresh fruit season.

For more information about Radke’s Blueberries, follow them on Facebook or call (541) 753-5680.