Bees, Apples and My Bumper Crop

apple basket
Ready for saucing and pie!

For the first time in 13 years, I have a bumper crop of useable Haralson apples off the tree in my yard. I credit it to good luck, the University of Minnesota and lots of bees. Here’s the story.

I’ve had two apple trees in my yard for 13 years (the Haralson and a Connell Red) and I’ve barely harvested a fruit from them in all that time. I’ve never wanted to go through the bother and risk associated with spraying apples and haven’t had the get-up-and-go to put little bags around each apple I wanted to harvest.  I like the look of apple trees and I’d resigned myself to finding a few decent apples and giving the rest up to the maggots and the worms.

An Unintended Consequence

haralson tree
The tree is loaded with fruit this year.

I’ve read a bit more about apples in the last year or so, and last fall I decided to at least get serious about sanitation around my trees. I picked up as many of the crappy apples that fell in autumn as I could in an effort to reduce pests, which tend to overwinter in the soil.

Last year and again this spring, I also participated in a University of Minnesota research project to track the arrival of the spotted wing drosophila in Minnesota. The project involves setting out traps — a plastic jar baited with apple cider vinegar and a sticky paper — to catch the bugs. This year, I set the trap in the Haralson tree.

About midway through the summer, I noticed a lot more apples — and I mean, a LOT more apples on the Haralson tree. (The other tree looked like it always did.) Later in the summer, I noticed that not only were there a lot more apples, but many of them (not all, of course, but enough) looked good. No signs of maggot damage or worm holes.

Oddly, the good-looking apples concerned me more than the lousy looking ones. (It’s all a game of expectations.) Were they safe to eat??? I hadn’t sprayed and I hadn’t bagged and I hadn’t even put out the traps that are recommended for apple growing in Minnesota.

After consulting a variety of web sources that basically said, if there are no visible signs of damage, they are OK to eat, I decided I needed a human to confirm that. I had some pots to return to Knecht’s Nursery in town from three shrubs I’d planted recently, so while there I asked Heidi about the apple situation. She confirmed that yes, bad apples would be showing their badness by this time of year, so anything that looked OK was OK.

My Traps are SO Attractive

apples looking good
They are not perfect, but lots of decent apples here.

She also offered an interesting hypothesis about why I have so many apples. Heidi’s theory is that the apple cider vinegar traps I had in the tree this spring not only attracted the spotted wing drosophila bugs, they also attracted bees. “You probably finally got good pollination on the tree,” she said. With good pollination came the bigger crop — plenty for the worms and plenty left over for me.

This past weekend was the first of what I expect will be a few weekends of canning applesauce, making apple butter and baking apple pies. Next year, I plan to try the same system. I’ll be cleaning up the area around my tree extra thoroughly this fall, then setting out an apple cider trap next year. We’ll see then if this was a fluke or simple way to get more, better apples.

How was your apple crop this year?

Bee on Baptisia

baptisia and bee
The bees love the nectar from baptisia.

With the sun out (finally) and the temperatures heating up, many plants have started to bloom and the bees and butterflies are returning to the garden. There were swarms of these large bumblebees working over the Baptisia ‘Twilight Blues’ that I have planted in the front garden. The size of this plant makes it almost like a shrub and the flowers, while fairly short-lived, are gorgeous. The bees seem to like them, too, and I know they get pollinated because every fall the black seed pods can be found dangling from the plants.

Assessing the Damage

It's a little out of focus, but there is something on that bloom.

After three nights in the 20s, it looks like we are out of the chilly woods for at least a week or so. Much needed rain is in the forecast and the low temperatures are predicted to remain in the high 30s and low 40s.

It seemed a good time to assess whatever damage occurred. First the good news, most of the blossoms on my cherry tree appear (at least for now) to have survived. And, the really good news is several of these little pollinators were hard at work on the blossoms that were open.

Most of the perennials that have come up seemed to have survived the frost with few problems. Two exceptions: This newly planted ‘Autumn Frost’ hosta really should have been covered up better (my bad!) and the leaves are wilted over completely. The plant was only a couple of inches out of the ground, so I’m hoping it may come up again. Also, a hearty looking (as opposed to really hardy) lupine also is slumped over.

What kind of damage did you experience with the hard freezes?

Finally, a Tomato — and a Correction

I harvested my first tomato yesterday, finally. It’s a Martino’s Roma tomato from Seed Savers Exchange, one of several paste tomatoes that I planted in hopes of having a huge harvest to freeze, can and dry. Given the green fruit on the plants now, the harvest will be better than last year, which was horrible, but not great. I’m hoping for a little more fruit set and a warmish September to give the fruit time to ripen.

Speaking of fruit set, I need to correct or at least amplify part of my previous post on tomatoes and heat.  Unlike many fruit-bearing plants, tomatoes are self-fertile, meaning they have both male and female parts. Usually tomatoes need only a little help from the wind to move the pollen from the anther to the stamen. (Sometimes gardeners will shake their tomato plants in hopes of moving the pollen around.) One reason we have so few tomatoes this year is that the high humidity levels made the pollen more sticky – and less willing to fall. According to this article by the Washington State University Extension Service, tomatoes have a very narrow window of temperature and humidity during which they set fruit.

Several readers informed me after my post on tomato blossom drop that bees were not involved in tomato fruit set (as I thought), and they usually aren’t. But it seems they may have some role.  Apparently, sonicating bees (those that noisily flap their wings) who get near tomatoes in flower encourage the pollen to spread better than wind. Also bumblebees are used to pollinate tomatoes in greenhouses where wind is not available to do the job.

Fortunately, my garden has plenty of wind and lots of bees, so however the job gets done, I’d like to see a little more pollination — and a lot more tomatoes.

 

 

New Guide to Protecting Pollinators

After almost 50 hours of Master Gardener training this month, there is one image that I cannot get out of my mind. During the lecture on growing fruit, the professor put up a photo of some workers in China, up on ladders in the middle of an apple tree that was covered with blossoms.  The workers were pollinating the flowers by hand because excessive pesticide use in the area had killed all of the bees and native pollinators for apples.

Pollinators — bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, birds, and a host of other insects and animals — are crucial to food production, whether you are growing a home garden or apples for the world market. That’s one reason I was so excited to receive a review copy of the Xerces Society’s new book, Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies, (Story Press, 2011). This is a well-illustrated, down-to-earth guide to why pollinators matter, what is happening that threatens pollinators, and the simple things any of us can do to increase the world’s pollinator population. (In a nutshell: Plant flowers and back off the pesticides.)

While considerable attention has been given to diminishing populations of honeybees and Colony Collapse Disorder, honeybees are not native to North America. They are hugely important in pollinating some crops (almonds, especially) but the average Midwestern garden is far more likely to be visited by bumble bees, orchard mason bees, or the guys who seem to love it at my place, leaf cutter bees. Most of these bees (and 90 percent of all North American bees) are solitary insects who play a vital role in helping us produce vegetables and fruit as well as helping to control problem pests.

The book provides detailed instructions on how to provide habitat for pollinators, what plants to plant in various regions (I was pleased that more than half of the recommended plants for the Midwest and Great Plains are in my garden now, with more to come), and how to recognize and support the pollinators in your yard.

So how do we support pollinators? The simple answer is to provide a diversity of plants. If possible, choose plants that are native to your area and plan for a sequence of blooms from early spring through fall. Try to provide habitat as well, such as a bee house or nesting sites for ground nesting bees.  Don’t be too obsessive about keeping your garden cleaned up — a pile of brush can be home-sweet-home to many pollinators. They also like holes in the ground and hollow logs, if you have one hanging around. Also, plant “sacrificial plants,” those that you know may be eaten by caterpillars or other larvae on their way to becoming butterflies.

That’s the simple answer, but for more detail and some fantastic bee and butterfly photos, check out Attracting Native Pollinators. If you are a member of the Minnesota Horticultural Society, the review copy I received will be in the hort society library in a few weeks.

The Bees are Back

I built this simple bee house in the summer of 2008, and it has consistently attracted insects — despite an attack from a woodpecker last summer. Well, the bees are back. About two weeks ago, I noticed that some of the holes were being filled with mud, a sure sign that some pollinating insect was laying eggs in the box. The chambers are all filled now, with the exception of the woodpecker hole, and in a few weeks the bees will emerge and begin pollinating my raspberries and all of the other plants in the neighborhood.

Welcome back!