Warm winter weather has blueberries budding and bees buzzing weeks earlier than usual, but a return to normal winter weather could damage this year’s berry crop or hamper pollination.
“You can see the buds starting to break on some of the early varieties and that’s something we usually like to see around mid-March,” said Jason Smith, a blueberry farmer and chairman of the BC Blueberry Council.
One bud contains 10 to 14 flowers — each a potential blueberry — but they are vulnerable to frost damage.
“It’s scary to be this warm this early,” he said. “We could easily get a cold snap that at this point could do a lot of damage. The buds are opening to the point where if we got to minus two, three, four, five degrees with a wind it would just suck the moisture out of those buds and make them non-productive.”
Because different varieties of blueberries flower at different times, the chances of losing an entire crop to frost are low. But early flowering may also lead to poor pollination, which is essential for a robust crop.
“If the plants start to flower early, the weather has be warm enough so the bees will come out of their hives or that could hugely effect (the crop),” said Smith.
While some natural pollinators, such as bumble bees, are active at low spring temperatures, commercial pollinators require calm conditions and temperatures of about 16C to be effective over a large area, said Smith.
So for the sake of their crops, farmers are hoping that if it gets warm, it stays warm enough so the bees can do their work.
European honeybees — widely used in commercial fruit pollination — will not leave the hive to forage and pollinate in cool temperatures, Catherine Culley, president of the B.C. Honey Producers Association.
And honeybees that do leave the hive to forage when daily temperatures peak may be unable to return if the temperature drops before they return.
“They just stop flying and they can’t move,” said Culley. “You can lose a lot of bees that way.”
If this year’s window for blueberry pollination comes weeks earlier than normal, farmers may find themselves scrambling to find hives to complete the work. A shortage of hives in 2013 hurt blueberry crops — cutting production by an estimated four to nine million kilograms — after beekeepers were unable to get enough hives ready for early season pollination.