The Power of Pollination

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A couple of years ago, farmer Tony Emmi’s neighbor asked him for a favor. Mr. Winter, his friendly, longtime beekeeper and proprietor of Winter Apiaries—located just down the road, outside Syracuse, in upstate New York—was doing some renovations on his property and wanted to know if Tony would be willing to store some of his honey bees for him temporarily.

Tony said of course. He liked Mr. Winter. Tony’s farm, Emmi & Sons (part of a farm co-op that has supplied fairy tale eggplants to Blue Apron), and Winter Apiaries had been doing business together for years. And after all, bees are an enormously positive presence on a farm. As bees weave between flowers, collecting the nectar and pollen they feed on, flecks of pollen get stuck to their bodies, and they spread it to other plants, which allows the plants to bear fruit. Without this symbiotic loop of sustenance and reproduction, much of the food we eat—including many of our vegetables, fruits, and nuts—could not grow.

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What happened next left Tony in awe. At the time, he was growing 10 acres of winter squash, and he had been planning to rent his usual hive per acre from Winter Apiaries to help with pollination. He had never tried renting more than that; for a medium-sized, 300-acre farm like Emmi & Sons (started during World War II by Tony’s grandfather and expanded by Tony’s father and Tony himself), doing so would have felt cost prohibitive. Tony had never seen what happens when bees run amok—until then.

Pollination_Blog_3 “The yields were unbelievable,” Tony remembers. Mr. Winter had brought in 60 hives, and Tony put them all in his winter squash fields, planted with varieties like butternut, honeynut, acorn, spaghetti, delicata, and buttercup. The bees pollinated so many of the plants so often that Tony couldn’t actually pick all of the fruit, since much of it was still green during the harvest that fall, forcing him to leave it on the vine immature. “I even offered to pay Mr. Winter for the hives,” Tony laughs. “But he wouldn’t take it. There were so many bees—you couldn’t even walk in there. I really got to see the powerful effect of pollination up close.”

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Domesticated bees have been used to help pollinate crops for millennia. The Ancient Egyptians transported mud hives up and down the Nile as different crops came into bloom. Today, beekeepers move bees from farm to farm in trucks loaded with bee boxes, or slatted wooden hives, carefully unloading them in farmers’ fields.

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At Emmi & Sons, Winter Apiaries’ bees show up in mid-April, and they start by the apples, pollinating fruit that won’t be picked until fall. (Ever since his memorable favor for Mr. Winter, Tony does his best to incorporate an extra hive per acre into his budget to increase yields.) Then Mr. Winter and his son—who, like many beekeepers, only wears a netted hat, no suit or gloves—return and put the hives by the strawberries and blueberries. Next, they move them into the fields of zucchini and yellow summer squash, and finally by the winter squash in late July. When pollination at Emmi & Sons is done, Mr. Winter picks up his bees and heads to Florida to pollinate winter citrus, following the larger patterns of continental bloom.

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And so it goes across the country: honey bees move by the billions between regions, pollinating almond trees in California, say, then traveling to Massachusetts to pollinate cranberries. Just as bees and plants co-evolved to provide for each other, the  fates of humans and bees are intertwined. We can’t do without bees, whom we domesticate in large numbers. Our food system relies on them. And bees need our help: native bee species are threatened with extinction. Meanwhile, colony collapse disorder, a mysterious plague attributed to a number of simultaneous factors—including pesticides, poor nutrition, parasites, and viruses—is eroding honey bee populations, jeopardizing the availability of produce and driving up the price of pollination for farms like Emmi & Sons.

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“If we lost bees, it would be devastating,” says Tony. “They’re a natural resource,” like fresh water, minerals, forests, and fertile land. “We have to protect them.” In so doing, we protect ourselves. And, in a way, we’re not so different. Bees harvest nectar and pollen from the same crops that Tony later harvests himself, and they dine on them just like we dine on the delicious fruits, nuts, and vegetables of their labor.

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