1 August 2011
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.