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Bees
1 August 2011

Bees

Most people like bees.  No, I take that back, many people are afraid of bees but most people realize that bees are important.  Not only do bees make delicious honey, they also pollinate flowers.  The plants very much appreciate it and so do we because without flowers we wouldn't have the resulting fruits and vegetables.  Bees even deserve some credit for bacon cheeseburgers.  Without bees there would be no corn or other feed for the cattle to make the burgers or the cheese.  So I like bees.

Pollinating Not all plants need bees.  Coffee doesn't need bees.  Every coffee bean starts life as a fragrant little white flower.  When the trees are in bloom they are covered with these flowers, making the entire field look like it is dusted with a light coat of snow.  We call this Kona snow.

A heavy bloom means a heavy harvest.  We definitely like that.  The bees like it too.  When the coffee is in bloom, the entire field is buzzing with bees.  There's no telling if the bees get a caffeine high but they sure do seem to love all the coffee flowers.  Still, the coffee doesn't need the bees.

Some coffee needs bees.  Robusta (coffea canephora robusta) is a variety of coffee that is bitter and often used as cheap filler in lower quality coffee.  It is a hardy variety of coffee which makes it less expensive to grow.  Robusta is diploid, with only 22 chromosomes, and is self-sterile.  That means it needs bees or other external means for successful cross pollination.

All of our coffee is Arabica (coffea arabica typica).  Arabica coffee is a tetraploid, with 44 chromosomes, and is self-pollinating.  That means our trees don't need bees.  They can successfully pollinate and grow coffee without the aid of bees or other insects.  Being self-pollinating also makes them more genetically stable and less susceptible to possible GMO contamination but that's a whole other issue.

Just because our coffee doesn't need bees does not mean that bees are not welcome on the farm.  Quite the contrary, it has been shown that pollination by bees can increase coffee production.  The exact numbers may be disputed but as far as I'm concerned, any increase is good.  We get plenty of wild bees without any effort on our part so that increased production is totally free.

Hart I've always thought it would be fun to have a couple bee hives around the farm.  My brother and brother-in-law recently got some bee hives.  I don't know if they have their own honey yet but even without home grown honey, raising bees would be fun.  Unfortunately I have decided that it is not cost effective for me to raise bees.  The wild bees do a fine job and I don't have enough time for another hobby.

We don't use any harmful pesticides on the farm but if we did, I would be very careful to not harm the bees or any other beneficial insects.  We have applied a natural fungus to help control the coffee berry borer which is a potentially devastating coffee pest.  The fungus appears to be surprisingly affective with very few side effects.  The fungus does not hurt bees, probably because bees can control their body temperature better which kills the fungus.

Bees aren't totally out of harms way though.  Bees in Hawaii are struggling with the parasitic mite (Varroa destructor).  This could be bad for all agriculture, not just bee keepers.  So far though, the wild bee population in Kona still seems strong.  Recently, Valerie was a personal witness to that fact.

Valerie does quite a bit of work around the farm.  On this occasion, she had loaded the trailer with a load of yard waste and was using the riding mower to tow it to the back field where she was going to dump it.  She's done this operation plenty of times before.  It's normally a matter of pulling up, emptying the trailer, then driving away.  This time though, things didn't go quite as planned.

Flowers Valerie pulled up and started to unload the trailer.  As she threw the first branch over the side, she felt a painful stinging on her back, followed by another on her elbow and another on her knee.  This immediately resulted in running and screaming which was quickly followed by panicked flailing and slapping.

After deciding that she had run far enough and was no longer being attacked, Valerie took a minute to calm down then proceeded back to the mower which was still idling right where she left it.  That's when she realized that the mower was enveloped in a swarm of angry bees.

Valerie is brave but not stupid.  Having just been stung three times, she decided to keep some distance between herself, the mower and it's newly acquired swarm of angry friends.  Loud noise and carbon dioxide are two things that signal "Predator Alert" to bees.  A running mower produces plenty of both.

Valerie watched from a distance for a few minutes.  It was obvious that the bees were very unhappy and planned on staying that way for awhile.  So what did she do?  What would you do?  You'd go find someone else and make them deal with the problem.

My first step was to drive back there myself and confirm the problem.  Sure enough, there was the mower, still running, surrounded by a swarm of angry bees.  If the mower wasn't running I might have just left it there for awhile but the rain drops were just beginning to fall so I figured I had better do something.

I went back to the house and pulled out some winter clothes.  Heavy boots, gloves, long pants over my shorts, a hooded sweatshirt and plenty of duct tape to seal all the seams.  I know that's probably overkill.  I've seen the local beekeeper moving his hives around while wearing no shirt at all.  I don't care, I didn't want to get stung.

With my bee armor in place, I headed back to the mower.  I double checked my outfit for leaks then calmly but quickly headed into the cloud of bees.  The plan was to simply drive the mower away and leave the bees behind so they could go about their business in peace.  That was the plan.  The problem was that not only did Valerie park the mower on a bee hive, then run away while leaving the mower running, she had also somehow managed to get the mower stuck.

Strap
Plan B.  Luckily my bee armor had proven effective so far because I really had no choice, I had to get the mower away from the bees.  I got out a cargo strap, tied one end to the mower then stretched it as far as I could and tie the other end to the truck.  With Valerie driving the truck I got back on the mower and together we managed to get the thing unstuck.

In hindsight, these bees were probably ground dwelling yellow jackets rather than honey bees.  I can't be sure though because I didn't stick around long enough to find the exact hive.  The brush in that area is deceptively thick so there is plenty of room for a honey bee hive.  Of course there are also plenty of places for a yellow jacket burrow.  Either way, it may be awhile before Valerie takes another load of yard waste back there again.

Honey bees or yellow jackets, I'm happy to have them both on the farm.  Even though they're not strictly necessary, honey bees probably do a lot to help increase coffee production.  Yellow jackets don't accomplish nearly as much pollination but they do eat other insects.  I don't have any direct evidence but with the coffee berry borer such a potential threat, I'm happy to have all the insect predators I can get.  Valerie may disagree but I think a few little stings is a small price to pay in exchange for good farming.




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