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Covered head to toe by protective jackets, beekeeepers Marco Ortega and Darren Bullins gently stacked hives as honeybees buzzed around them by the thousands.
Ortega and Bullins, who work for Tim Holt’s Apiary, were gathering more than 1,200 beehives that have been stationed around Wilson County watermelon and cucumber fields over the summer.
More than 1,000 bees live in each box.
For the last two months, many of the boxes have been in watermelon fields off N.C. 42 at Fresh Pik Produce near Wilson.
“Without those honeybees, there would be very little fruit to harvest,” said James Sharp of Fresh Pik Produce. “We couldn’t be here if it weren’t for those little honeybees out there working.”
Sharp grows about 275 acres of watermelons.
“The wild bee population is not high enough to pollinate the concentration and the number of acres that we are planting, so we have to bring in those extra beehives to pollinate it all,” Sharp said.
Sharp has beehives positioned on fields of watermelons in the summer and strawberries in the spring every year.
Ortega and Bullins arrived early in the morning, before sunrise, to begin the three-hour process of loading the bees.
“It was still early in the morning and still kind of cold this time of year,” Ortega said.
Bees are somewhat lethargic in the morning and are less likely to get upset by all of the activity around their home.
At one point, a box fell off the stack, knocking off its lid, and the bees took flight around the accident scene.
Still, the beekeepers managed not to get stung.
“If it was 2 o’clock, it would be a different story,” Ortega said.
In the warmest part of the day, the bees are likely to get upset, fly away from the box and may be willing to sting.
“They try to find who was messing with that box,” Ortega said.
Both Ortega and Bullins say they have been stung many times.
“You cannot be allergic working here,” Ortega said.
The bees can sense if you are scared of them, Ortega added.
“They can tell. Every time you come here and be scared about bees, the bees come to you,” he said. “If a bee stings you in one place, another one is going to sting you there. Especially when you are around 1,000 houses.”
The key, Bullins said, is not to move fast around them.
“Move slow and they will crawl on you, and they won’t sting you,” Bullins said. “When you move fast, it kind of scares them, so they are going to sting you.”
Ortega said he and Bullins will again be working to gather up the last of the beehives this week for the trip south to the warm weather of Florida for the winter.
They will return to North Carolina in the spring when they will be taken to blueberry farms in White Lake, then to Wilson in the summer for the watermelon and cucumber crop.
The bees are simply vital to having a good crop, Sharp said.
“If it’s pollinated well, the fruit will be shaped nice and it will size up good,” Sharp said. “Poor pollination will make deformed fruit and it may be misshapen.”
There is a certain amount of pollen that is needed to correctly pollinate a flower. One bee visit is not enough.
David Tarpy, professor and extension apiculturalist at the N.C. State University Department of Entomology, quoting various studies, said it takes more than eight honeybee visits to properly pollinate a watermelon plant, eight to 12 visits for a cucumber plant and 16 to 19 visits for strawberries.
“Without the pollinators, we wouldn’t have a lot of the good fruits,” said Jennifer Keller, an apiculture technician who works with Tarpy at NCSU. “We would have all the grains, the corn and wheat, but as far as the things we enjoy eating like the watermelon and blueberries, we would not be able to enjoy them as much.”
The feral bee population is just not sufficient to pollinate a large field of crops, so farmers supplement the pollinating activity by bringing in hives and honeybees.
“Oftentimes, even putting them at one end of the field, if it’s a big enough field, you can see a difference in the bees,” Keller said. “They are more populated at that end versus the opposite end because it is such a large field. The beekeeper will have to spread out the hives to be able to pollinate everything.”
“We usually put about two hives to the acre,” Sharp said.
The feral bees have been down in their numbers since the introduction of the Varroa mite, a small parasite that can attach itself to the insect.
“The Varroa mite is the main problem for the beekeepers,” Keller said. “That’s something that we can treat in the hives, but obviously in the wild, those don’t get treated. Sometimes a hive can survive for several years before it will finally succumb to the pressure of the Varroa mite. The overall health of the honeybee in the wild is unknown because we can’t get in there and look at them, but their numbers are down.”