Who's Tickling the Stamens In Mike Wolf's Pickle Patch?

Flight of the honeybees prompts farmers to find new ways to pollinate their produce

Mike (Elder) Wolf would like to know who or what has been pollinating his pickle patch.

Squatting between rows of drooping plants, he pulls back broad green leaves to reveal a vine full of young cucumbers as thick and knotted as his calloused middle finger. "I saw three honey bees yesterday, and before that nothing," he says. "But I've got pickles."

Finding out what tickled the stamens and stigmas in farmer Wolf's fields may answer a number of questions vexing agricultural experts across Ohio and the nation. Did a late-spring frost do in this year's crop of red delicious apples in Ohio? Will there be pumpkins to harvest in October? Does the black and yellow cucumber beetle, a voracious diner of soft white pickle meat, help produce its food supply?

What prompts these inquiries is the near-total devastation of feral and domestic honeybees, the plow horse of pollinators. Farmers rely on honeybees to produce everything from almonds in Sacramento to cranberries on Cape Cod. Some 50 crops in California alone depend on these blossom buzzers. Yet, in a decade, wild honeybee stocks have declined by an estimated 90 to 95 percent nationwide. Managed colonies are doing little better.

By all accounts, this year is the worst. Commercial hives have dwindled by as much as 80 percent in Maine, according to the American Beekeeping Federation, 60 percent in Michigan, and 25 percent in Arkansas. Here in Ohio, managed apiaries are down an estimated 50 percent.

Pesticides have played a role. So did the long, cold winter. But what has really put the sting to the hive, entomologists say, are two strains of mites. Infestations have gotten so bad that beekeepers can hardly maintain hives from year to year.

Sound catastrophic? The end of fresh fruits and vegetables? Agriculturalists are abuzz. Farmers across northern Ohio complain they have had trouble finding keepers with enough healthy bees to work their fields. The apple crop from here to Wisconsin is 25 percent below normal, and may reflect the bees' absence. Squash blossoms are ready for pollinating, and farmers are tense.

"It's like predicting the outcome of a tornado during the storm," says Jim Tew, a honeybee researcher at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center at Ohio State University in Wooster. "Honeybees are gone from an ecological perspective. That jeopardizes food for wildlife. But there are a host of excellent pollinators out there that are probably doing the bulk of the work now."

Indeed, honeybees are only one of roughly 200,000 species of insects, and like most of us, they're immigrants, having traveled across the Atlantic with Europeans almost 400 years ago. And while honeybees have attained a kind of John Henry status among insects, pollinating about 15 percent of US crops annually, they are not alone in their abilities.

Bumblebees, mason bees, and leafcutters have been know to frolic nose-down among the blossoms. Butterflies bounce over prairie grasses, humming birds hang on purple fuchsias. Mr. Wolf suspects a number of stiff winds may have pollinated his pickles.

Even so, the crisis in the hive has stirred a swarm of activity - and philanthropy - to try to bring back the honeybee. Scientists have developed two ways to ward off mite infestation: plastic strips impregnated with mite poison harmless to bees, and grease patties made of shortening and sugar. Mr. Tew apologizes for the unscientific explanation of the latter. "We're not sure, but the shortening seems to make the bees too slippery for the mites to hold on."

More and more homeowners, meanwhile, are putting hives next to their barbecues. "There is a lot of interest by people to get hives," says bee supplier Tom Jefferies, who helps teach a course in basic beekeeping. "You can spend $40 dollars for three pounds of bees and a queen, get your garden pollinated, and maybe even get some honey."

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