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Pollinators essential to success

Florida's blueberry production on the up

Blueberry growing is becoming more popular in Florida; acres under the crop are increasing, as are the number of new operations and organic and U-Pick farms.

Like many crops in Florida, blueberries are dependent on bee-pollination to set fruit. It is really very simple — the more bees that visit a flower, the more pollen grains that will be transferred from the male stamen to the female, resulting in more fertilized ovules. This equals a larger, more evenly ripening fruit and demonstrates why pollination is so critical for the grower to understand and manage.

Blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) are more adapted to buzz pollination, a vibrating act performed by bumble bee species and other native pollinators that literally shakes the pollen from the flower. However, the availability and abundance of these native pollinators are often not enough to support pollination needs for larger or commercial operations. This is where managed pollinators come into the picture.

Management Matters
Most growers rent managed honey bee colonies for pollination services during the bloom period. The recommended stocking rate is two to five hives per acre, and with upwards of 50,000 bees per hive, there's no question that honey bees can get the job done. The bloom window is relatively short, with abundant flowers that require pollination within approximately three days after opening. However, it is important that honey bees be placed onto the site only after the target crop reaches 5% to 10% bloom.

Honey bees forage on the closest, most abundant forage source until it is exhausted. Placing honey bees before the target blooms will leave the bees foraging on the next best source and not the blueberries, even if they are open. Communication between the grower and the beekeeper is crucial to ensure sure hives are ready and placed on site at the correct time relative to bloom.

The time period that honey bees are on site for pollination can pose a number of other challenges beyond the timing of hive placement for both the beekeeper and the grower. Blueberry growers face the challenges of pollination itself: bad weather, wind, rain, and sudden blooms can all interfere with bees being available during that crucial bloom time. This is on top of fluctuating market prices and the need to manage pest pressures from insects, mites, and diseases that are often controlled using pesticides, which can pose risks to honey bees and other pollinators. Because both bee pollination and insect control are essential to the success of blueberry production, it is important that both beekeepers and growers work together to reduce these risks.

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