The buzz in the orchard this week!

This week’s blog is dedicated to Rudy Katerberg. He was a good friend who taught me much of what I know about honeybees and their fascinating lives.

 

I often think that for a couple weeks in the spring, we live in the prettiest place there is! Blossom time in the orchards is beautiful. There are millions of flowers on the trees and everywhere you go is like a natural aromatherapy session! And we get to watch as thousands of honeybees go about their work on warm sunny days.

Bee Hive 2.jpg

An orchard pallet with 6 hives

Do you know that if it were not for honeybees, we would not be able to grow apples? In fact all of the fruits we grow, except peaches, require some sort of bees for pollination. We rent our bees from a local beekeeper and he brings them in during the blossom period and removes them when the flowers are finished. Each hive has 30,000-50,000 bees inside. While they are here, the bees do a tremendous amount of work. For instance, to grow nice apples, each flower should be visited 4-6 times by a bee. To pollinate the flower, the bee must be carrying pollen from another variety of apple. This is called cross-pollination. A Gala apple cannot be pollinated with Gala pollen. It has to have pollen from another variety. This is true of all apples. With acres and acres of blossoming trees out there, bees have a monumental task! But the bees love their work, and they are happiest on sunny days with light winds and plenty of flowers nearby. Here is a short video of a honeybee working on some cherry blossoms.

Not every blossom on the tree gets pollinated. Some are not visited at all. Others are not visited enough times. If you have ever seen an apple that was misshapen—one side was bigger than the other—it is because of incomplete pollination. If you cut that apple in half you will find that there are fewer or even no seeds in the small side of the apple. That blossom was not visited enough times by the bees. Here are some more interesting bee facts that will amaze you!

  • Honeybees are not native to the USA. They are European in origin, and were brought to North America by the early settlers.
  • Bees use pollen, which is really sticky, and combine it with nectar to make bee bread. They feed this to the baby bees.
  • To make a pound of honey, honeybees need to visit 2,000,000 flowers!
  • An average bee makes 1/12 a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.
  • Bees flap their wings 200 times per second. That makes the familiar “Buzzzzz”.

Our bees are model employees. They work from sun up to sun down day after day. They will travel up to 5 miles one way to harvest pollen and nectar to feed the young in the hive. The only time they are a bit ornery is when it is cold or rainy and they can’t work outside! And, as a side benefit to us, they make honey for our toast and make it possible to crunch on a fresh apple in the fall!

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A honeybee on a peach blossom.

That’s the buzz in our orchards!

Hope you have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

 

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Planning, planting and other adventures

I’ll bet you thought spring would never come! This past weekend was just what everyone was waiting for! It is amazing what a few days with plentiful sunshine and temps in the low 80’s can do for everyone’s morale. Suddenly everything is motorcycles, lawn mowers and all things summer. I even saw more than a few Sea-Doo’s and boats go by on trailers! It seems everyone is happy to be outside! Over this past weekend’s warm spell our tree’s growth really exploded. It’s amazing to watch them put on 2-3 days normal growth in a single day.

Spring is a time for renewal. Time to freshen things up. Clean things up. Out with the old and in with the new. That rule applies here at the orchard too. We are finishing up on removing some older trees and planting new trees to replace them. I’m often asked “Why are you cutting those trees down? Aren’t they still growing apples?” The answer is “Yes, but we want to grow better apples!” Times change and so do people’s tastes in fruit. When the demand for an older variety lessens, it only makes sense to change our plantings around a bit. We will still grow those old favorites, just not as many of them as we used too. We need to make room for new favorites too! Planting systems change as well. Where we used to plant 120 trees per acre, we now are putting 1200 (more on that in a future blog)! So every year we remove a percentage of our older plantings and renew them with fresher ones.

Sometimes our renewals don’t go as planned. A few years ago we removed an older peach orchard and after giving the soil a year off to rebuild, we planted a fresh new orchard of Red Haven peach trees. In a couple of years the planting looked great! A beautiful young orchard just ready to bear fruit! But the first year we harvested a few peaches from the trees we became a bit suspicious. They just didn’t have the Red Haven flavor and texture and the pit would NOT come away from the peachy flesh! “Maybe it’s because they are so young yet and not settled into bearing,” we thought. “Maybe they will be better next year.” But the next season what we feared became obvious. These were not Red Haven trees. They weren’t even a very good peach. There had been a mix-up at the nursery that sold us the trees. So sadly we had to start over from scratch. This spring we removed all of those original trees and replanted. The nursery will replace the trees free-of-charge, but the time and opportunity loss will upset our plans. Dad used to say, “Better to have trouble in the barn than in the house.” And he was right.  This isn’t a disaster, just a hiccup in our best laid plans!

So for a few years here our peach harvest won’t be quite what we had planned. But hopefully in a few more years we will have a new crop of “real” Red Haven peaches that will make your mouth water! And we will be planning more renewals….

Hope you have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

How we confuse our pests!

Technology. When you hear that word, your first thought is probably not farming. But be assured research and development in farming today rivals any industry! You would be amazed at the advances in science that are developed and used in agriculture today! For example, we all want more healthful food for ourselves and our children. One way to affect that is to reduce pesticide usage as much as possible. Here is one way that we do that.

You all know the old joke. “Question. What is worse that biting into an apple and finding a worm? Answer. Finding HALF a worm!” Ewww! Well how about no worms at all? This is where pheremones come in. What is a pheromone? Think of it this way. Let’s say you are told to go into a room full of people and find the person wearing Chanel No. 5. If you know the scent and use your nose, you will find the person. But if we pump the scent of Chanel No. 5 through the heating system, you will be hard pressed to find the individual because the scent will be everywhere!

One of the major pests in apples, the worm that disgusts us all, is Codling Moth. The male moths use pheremones to find female insects to mate with. The males have sensors to locate and hone in on the source of the pheromone, which is a female moth. This little moth lays its’ eggs on apples, and when the eggs hatch, well there’s your worm! This is where the science comes in. Researchers have been able to develop the Codling Moth Pheremone and apply it to a small plastic loop in a time-released formula. We can distribute enough of these loops through the orchard so that the whole “room” is filled with Chanel No. 5. Oops, I mean Codling Moth pheromone! The little males are hopelessly overloaded and they can’t find the females! So no eggs and no worms!

This week we have begun placing these loops in the orchard. We use a specially designed “wicket” and hang them near the top of the tree. They will last through the summer, and will help us reduce pesticide use. To see how our loops are performing, we place insect traps in our trees with a very strong pheromone lure to see if we can catch the male moths. If they can find the trap, they can find a female. We check these traps weekly throughout the season to monitor our success. Our experience has been excellent over the last several years. And that is just one of the ways technology helps us grow better apples!

applying loop

Hope you have a fruitful week!

Tom Moelker

Why we think the lakes are GREAT!

Spring Break! Something all the kids look forward to. This year, if you planned a trip down south it really paid off. Sometimes I think that in Michigan spring break week is really a break FROM spring! Between the snow and rain to temperatures in the teens I think we all get confused!

We have a unique set of circumstances here along the western side of the state that allows us to grow fruit trees farther north than in neighboring states. We live in the shadow of Lake Michigan, and it’s a moderating factor for our weather. Believe it or not, if it were not for the Big Lake we probably couldn’t grow fruit this far north. The same lake that keeps us warmer in the winter (protecting our fragile fruit trees) also keeps us cooler longer into the spring. This delays the fruit trees spring start and most years keeps them from blooming until the chances of killing frost have past. Most years. There are of course exceptions, and longtime farmers can rattle off those years from memory.

This “Lake Effect” is a factor along some of the other areas as well. The map below shows the areas that fruit is grown in the Great Lakes region. Notice where the highest concentrations are, on the warmer downwind side of the lakes. This didn’t just happen by chance. Over the last 150-200 years farmers recognized the climate was different in these area and afforded them opportunities that weren’t available even 50-75 miles away from the lake. Fruit is grown far north as Traverse City and Northern Ontario in a relatively narrow band of counties close to the lakes.

orchard-map

Our soils and climate here on the west coast of Michigan help us to produce apples, peaches and other fruits that have exceptional quality and flavor. So we really do live in the GREAT lake state! So even though we have to put up with some less than ideal spring breaks sometimes, remember that Lake Michigan is not only a great place to swim, boat, fish, and watch sunsets. It is also the reason we can crunch a fresh apple in the fall!

Hope you have a fruitful week!
Tom Moelker