Spring is here and soon we won’t be the only ones working hard in the orchard. Before the apples can start growing, the blossoms need to pollinated. In my last post we looked at a year in the orchard; this time we’re discussing the first step during the growing year and the importance of bees in the growing of a successful apple crop.
Timing of bloom varies between location and apple variety, but we generally expect to see blossoms in late April – early May here in British Columbia. Once 30% of the blossoms are opening, we have a bee keeping company bring hives to the orchard. The bees arrive at the orchard from their apiary in ‘supers’, wooden boxes the bees live in filled with slats that the they build their honeycomb on. The beekeeper, or apiarist, will place a double hive (two supers) carrying approximately 50-60,000 bees every 4 acres to maximize pollination efficiency.
Bees are key for two reasons: apples do not pollinate by wind, and they are not self-fertile. This means that an apple tree depends on a pollinator like bees to carry the pollen of a different variety of apple and deliver it in order to pollinate the blossoms and produce fruit. We help the bees out with the job of pollination by planting pollinator trees, like crab apples that produce many pollen-filled blossoms. These trees are planted every 15-20 trees, staggering their placement so the bees are never far from a pollinator tree. We also allow the dandelions in the aisles to grow so that the bees have an alternate food source, and aren’t tempted to leave the orchard.
Each fruit bud produces 5 blossoms, and we focus on pollinating the first blossom to emerge, known as the king blossom. The king blossom is the strongest of the blossoms and is most likely to produce the best fruit. Bees are fair weather workers, but in warm, dry conditions they can have the orchard pollinated in as little as two days. By watching bee activity, we can estimate how long it will take them to pollinate the block they are working in.
Once the bees have finished pollinating the king blossoms, the bee keeper picks them up and moves them to a new location. We then set out removing the later blossoms so that the fruitlets produced by the king blossoms can grow into a beautiful, high quality fruit that will be ready for harvest in fall!!