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US (WA): Honey bee activity in blueberry differs across growing regions

Commercial production of northern highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) is dependent upon rented colonies of honey bees (Apis mellifera) for meeting pollination requirements. Despite the prevalent use of honey bees, growers in Washington State and the greater Pacific Northwest (PNW), particularly those located in the western regions, claim pollination is limited and yield potential is subsequently reduced due to pollination deficits. However, there have been no studies or surveys that document this occurrence for this economically important region of blueberry production.

The objective of this study was to survey honey bee activity in commercial plantings of ‘Duke’ highbush blueberry in western and eastern Washington and to assess the relationship between honey bee activity, growing region, and select yield components. Honey bee colony strength was also assessed to evaluate this variable’s relationship to honey bee activity and measured yield components. Sixteen and 18 commercial ‘Duke’ blueberry fields across Washington State were surveyed in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Average number of honey bee visitations per plant and honey bee colony strength were determined to evaluate overall honey bee activity. Estimated yield, berry number per plant, berry size (mass), and seed number per berry were also determined and analyzed to determine their relationship to honey bee activity through regression analysis.

Honey bee visitation rates differed between western and eastern Washington, with western Washington sites consistently below recommended honey bee densities. Colony strength was also below recommended levels, but was lower for western Washington relative to eastern Washington. Estimated yield and berry number differed across sites and years, but were not related to honey bee visitation rates.

Regression analysis revealed few significant relationships, although honey bee visitation rates were positively related to seed number per berry and seed number was positively related to berry size (R2 = 0.25 and 0.16, respectively). Berry size was also positively related to colony strength (R2 = 0.63).

This study demonstrates that honey bee activity is limited in Washington blueberry production, particularly in western Washington, when compared with recommendations for optimal honey bee activity in blueberry. However, yields were unaffected between the compared regions. The lack of a relationship between honey bee visitation rates and yields suggests that pollination is sufficient for ‘Duke’ blueberry in Washington State and pollination deficits do not limit yield for this cultivar under the conditions of the study.

Access the full study at HortScience.

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