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Bees and watermelons
Rainfall and pollination keys for farm
bees
Honey bees congregate at a hive near a seedless watermelon field grown by Jeff Deal. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/ staff

Drivers traveling down portions of Old River Road North and Lakeview Road in Statesboro may notice the small white structures scattered throughout fields of rapidly growing watermelon vines. What they can’t see from the roadway are the thousands of bees swarming around the small hives.

Recent rainfall has caused the watermelon vines to explode with growth, and, hopefully, the bees will pollinate the plants as they happily zoom from flower to flower.

The fields belong to local farmer Jeff Deal, owner of Deal Farms. He grows traditional row crops as well as carrots and watermelons, and planted about 200 acres of the popular summer melon this year.

His target crop is seedless watermelons, which are more popular with consumers, but in order to have those, he must also plant seeded melon plants nearby. Then, bees do what bees do, pollinating and cross-pollinating.

Since seedless watermelons don’t produce seeds, the way to grow them involves the naturally seeded melon plants. According to Google, “When the tetraploid (seedless) plant is bred back, or pollinated, by a diploid or normal plant, the (result) produces a triploid plant that is basically a ‘mule’ of the plant kingdom, and it produces seedless watermelons.”

Deal said he has been using honeybees and bumblebees for three years to pollinate some of his crops.

bees watermelons
Honey bee hives help supply pollinators to a seedless watermelon field grown by Jeff Deal. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

He “rents” honeybees from B&G Honey Farm, owned by Bobby and Gail Colson. Currently, he is the only Bulloch County farmer using Colson’s bees, but Colson said using bees to pollinate is a common practice.

In the past, wild bees were sufficient to pollinate what was needed, but since the bee population has sharply declined, more farmers are turning to bee rental or maintaining their own bees.

“With vegetables, pollination is the key,” said Bulloch County Agent Bill Tyson.

If plants are not well pollenated, you get “misshapen fruit or fruits (produce) that are not normal.”
Bulloch County doesn’t “grow many commercial vegetables,” but some, like Deal, are targeting the specialty crops like carrots and watermelons, he said, adding that a handful of farmers in the area use bees.

Colson said the wild bee population took a drastic hit in 2006 and 2007 with the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, that “wiped out a lot of bees and hurt a lot of people.”

According the Environmental Protection Division (www.epa.gov), CCD occurs “when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen.”

The EPD says “reported cases of CCD have declined substantially over the last five years. The number of hives that do not survive over the winter months — the overall indicator for bee health — has maintained an average of about 28.7 percent since 2006–2007 but dropped to 23.1 percent for the 2014–2015 winter.”

No one knows the cause of CCD, Colson said. The disease decimated his bee population.

“I went from 450 hives to about 100,” he said.

Varroa mites are also a pest that affects bees; sometimes a host bee can carry “15 to 20 mites” alone, he said.

“When my dad had bees, there were no pests,” he said.

The EPD says several factors may contribute to the disease, including mites, pesticides, changes in the environment and other stressors.

Deal is hopeful that between the recent rainfall and the bees, he will soon have a bumper crop of melons. Local watermelons are usually ready for harvest in late June.

 

Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.

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