Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

The Birds And The Bees Of Pollinating An Orchard

Volunteers for the Bloomington Community Orchard are working hard to attract pollinators by building honeybee hives, mason bee homes and bird houses.

apple orchard

Photo: Swamibu (Flickr)

The success of an apple orchard depends on pollinators like honey bees and mason bees fertilizing one variety of tree with the pollen of another.

A Little Help From My Friends

All but a few apple varieties are self-unfruitful, which means they need to be fertilized with the pollen of a different variety of apple tree. “Diversity is inherently built into an orchard,” says Amy Countryman, a member of the board of directors for the Bloomington Community Orchard.

That’s where bees come in.

Honey bees pollinate more than 100 agricultural crops in the U.S., and orchard mason bees are considered to be even better pollinators than honeybees.

At a volunteer work day, community members of all ages are wielding drills, saws, hammers and paint brushes to assemble honeybee hives and mason bee homes as a way of enticing these beneficial bugs to make their homes at the orchard.

Bachelors Of The Bee World

The orchard purchased a starter colony of honey bees, called a nuke, from Hunter’s Honey Farm.

Mason bees are a little different. They’re not purchasing any mason bees — they’re hoping they just come. “We’re trying to create an ecosystem that is complete and that has everything birds and bees and people would want,” like a food source, water and shelter. “That’s what makes me want to go places,” Countryman says.

Unlike honey bees, mason bees are solitary creatures. “They like apartment living,” she says. Each female makes her own nest. There are no worker bees. They don’t produce any honey and they only sting if they feel especially threatened. While they are considered better pollinators then honeybees, their lifespan is much shorter — between 4 and 8 weeks.

orchard-mason-bee

Photo: macropoulos (Flickr)

Orchard mason bees tend to be smaller than honey bees, but their size depends on the size of the hole they were born in.

Home Sweet Home

Volunteers are making 12 mason bee homes that will likely house some 30 bees each.

In their natural environment, mason bees would breed in existing holes in trees, “but we can make a similar hole with a drill,” says one volunteer.

They are taking 4 X 4 blocks of wood and drilling holes 1/4–3/8 inches in diameter. The eggs laid closest to the front of the hole are unfertilized and develop into male bees, so volunteers are careful to drill holes deep enough to encourage the production of females — 4-8 inches deep.

mason-bee-home

Photo: annethelibrarian (Flickr)

This orchard mason bee home currently has one resident.

Security Guards For The Orchard

“Depending on the kind of bird you attract, they can either be beneficial or not so beneficial to the orchard,” says Countryman. Their goal for the bird houses made out of gourds is to attract insect eating birds, not the ones who enjoy snacking on fruit.

The size of the hole determines what kind of bird can live in it. A volunteer is sawing a 1 ½-inch hole in a gourd, which should be ideal for bug-eating bluebirds.

It’s their goal that with the help of nature’s critters, the orchard can maintain a healthy ecosystem without the use of pesticides.

Keeping chemicals out of the orchard is important not only for the quality of the fruit, but for the health of all the pollinators. A number of studies have linked a certain class of pesticides with colony collapse disorder which is threatening honeybee populations all over the Midwest.

Feed The Community

With volunteers of all ages getting their hands dirty in support of the orchard, Amy Roche, facilitator of the Board of Directors for Community Orchard and co-leader of the education team, believes it could be a powerful tool for educating the community about a sustainable food system.

I think that our hearts are yearning to make a dent in the disparity in the distribution of resources. Something that is so iconically, aesthetically pleasing as an orchard as a way to make that dent… it’s very accessible and draws people together. It’s fruit, my god! How could you not be drawn to fruit?

More: The Bloomington Community Orchard holds volunteer work days several times a month. Find out more information on their calendar.

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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