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Squash bees saving Franklin County farmers some cash

 Squash bees saving Franklin County farmers some cash

Not every bee is busy as a bee.

Honeybees are still snug in their hives in the early morning while the squash bees are out working the fields.

That little bit of bee lore promises to save a pumpkin farmer hundreds of dollars.

Bill Reynolds is renting fewer honeybee hives this year to pollinate his pumpkin patch near Waynesboro.

“We were doing 30 hives, now it’s 16,” Reynolds said. “That’s a pretty substantial savings. From looking out in the field, we have just as many pumpkins as we had last year.”

The savings could be substantial across Pennsylvania.

“We are probably the largest fresh pumpkin producer in the Northeast, if not in the entire U.S.,” said Penn State Extension horticulture educator Alex Surcica.

Last year, Surcica checked out the habits of squash bees on Reynolds’ farm and three others. he measured pumpkin and squash yields in fields that were available to bees for four hours and fields open all day.

“There was not a big difference between one or the other,” Surcica said.

Squash and pumpkin blossoms last less than a day. in the two hours before the honeybees make it out their front door, male squash bees will zoom between flowers looking for a mate. By afternoon, the males have crawled inside a blossom to sleep. the females return to their underground burrows to mix a batch of pollen and nectar to feed their larvae.

Squash bees are only attracted to the flowers of the cucumber family. they are fuzzy like honeybees and about the same size, but they are not social bees. they housekeep alone. Squash bees also have white stripes instead of yellow, and have more black on their bodies.

“They buzz a whole lot when you pick them up,” said Daniela Crawford, an intern on Fulton Farm at Wilson College. “Honeybees sting.”

Just 1 percent of bees sting, and only females, Surcica said. the stinger is linked to the ovipositor. Social bees, such as honeybees, fight in defense. Solitary bees, such as squash bees, take flight.

“She doesn’t have time to mess with you,” Surcica said.

It’s difficult for a farmer to look at his field and tell whether honeybees or squash bees are doing pollinating.

Surcica is testing a concept this year: Counting male bees in male blossoms will tell you whether you need to rent honeybees. Crawford collects male squash blossoms, some cradling up to 10 sleeping male squash bugs, and keeps them in a container overnight. the males eat their way out of the blossoms by the time she counts them in the morning and sets them free.

“It’s important to know we have bees to pollinate our crops,” Crawford said.

The most popular pollinator, the honeybee, has been having a rough time in the past five years. Entire hives are dying. Scientists have been trying to find the causes of colony collapse disorder. Leading suspects include the combination of a virus and fungus, pesticides and a parasite.

U.S. honey production is off:

n Honey yield per colony is at it lowest level since 1989.

n the number of commercial colonies has steadily declined since World War II. the U.S. has 3.3 million in 1986, and had less than 2.5 in 2009.

n Prices have more than doubled since 2001.

Reynolds paid about $45 five years ago to rent a hive of bees for the season. the price is now $60.

It’s been worthwhile to check out the work ethic of native pollinators.

“They were doing a majority of the work, and honeybees weren’t doing much,” Reynolds said. “There were a lot of squash bees and bumble bees in there. Squash bees and bumble bees fly in cloudy and rainy weather. Honeybees are fair-weather flyers.”

Reynolds didn’t lay off all his honeybees. Watermelons bloom before the squash bees are ready for the season. Surcica also recommended that he keep a few honeybee hives for insurance because of unpredictable environmental conditions.

He looks at managing his farm with the squash bees in mind.

The solitary bees overwinter in the ground. Heavy rains early in the season did not seem to affect them, he said. His practice of no-till did not disturb their nests.


Jim Hook can be reached at 262-4759 and jhook@publicopinionnews.com.  

Bees on Facebook

Alex Surcica is photographing pollinators for a field guide of the 40 most common bees and wasps in the Northeast.

The guide will feature 20 species of bees and 20 of wasps. most are not the famous social types, such as honeybees and paper wasps.

“I want to show people we have a huge diversity of bees,” said Surcica, horticulture educator for Penn State Extension in Franklin County. “There is no complete guide for bees and wasps in this area.”

The field guide, due out in a year online, will feature several views of the insects and a look inside and outside their nests. the guide will note distinguishing field marks and describe the insect’s lifecycle.

Surcica takes thousands of photographs his subjects. they are alive and unchilled. he uses a light table in a darkened studio.

“They go for the light,” he said. “They have no reason to fly out because ‘out’ is dark.”

He has wasps’ nests to photograph this fall and spring bees next year.

Sircica said his interest in bees grew from his first assignments at the local extension office to find alternative pollinators to honeybees. he became enamored with the bumble bee, an efficient native pollinator.

He acquired a one-year $14,843 grant through the Northeastern Integrated Pest Management Center to compile the field guide. the goal is to give the public and vegetable and fruit growers an easy tool for identifying bees and wasps and to reduce human conflict with the insects.

“More than 90 percent of the clients (contacted about the project) that were concerned about being stung decided not to use pesticides as a method of control after learning about bee and wasp lifecycles,” according to the grant proposal.

For a sneak preview of his work visit http://www.facebook.com/4wasps.

<a href="http://www.publicopiniononline.com/ci_18713442?source=most_viewedtag:news.google.com,2005:cluster=http://www.publicopiniononline.com/ci_18713442?source=most_viewedFri, 19 Aug 2011 14:20:24 GMT 00:00″>Squash bees saving Franklin County farmers some cash

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