"No bees, no blueberries." It's just that simple, says Ed Flanagan, president of Wyman's of Maine.
He ought to know. As one of the biggest wild blueberry producers in the world, Wyman's depends on bees to pollinate its massive crop. However, a mysterious phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, is causing the bee population to drop, and threatens to send Wyman's and other agricultural businesses into a tailspin.
Wyman’s desire to help save the bees and its blueberry crop, as well as a corporate commitment to sustainable growing practices, has made the small company a big leader in the efforts to find a cause and, it hopes, a solution for CCD.
Headquartered in Milbridge, Maine and in the heart of “Down East,” Wyman’s is family owned and the largest U.S.-owned grower of blueberries -- the second largest in North America. In business since 1874, it’s a vertically integrated company, meaning it grows, processes, and distributes its products directly to consumers, as well as to other distributors.
Wyman's is also a company with a heart, and has been recognized by others for its sustainability efforts. Four years ago, Flanagan says, Wyman's was invited to join the Sustainable Food Laboratory, a coalition of large and small businesses, and government and non-governmental organizations. The group's goal is simply to increase the amount of sustainably produced food around the world.
The Sustainability Awakening
Flanagan says its work with the consortium had a huge impact on the company.
“This marked a sea change for us," he says, "and we began to see everything we did through sustainability. And we saw it being good for business — a triple bottom line. We dedicated the company to pursuing sustainability as our mission."
Wyman’s "triple bottom line" includes:
* Economic profitability
* Environmental stewardship
* Social equityThis translates into actions like paying a little more to small growers of raspberries in Chile, or holding a recycling event to help them learn sustainable practices.
And while wild blueberries are a difficult crop to grow organically – they are low to the ground and are susceptible to fungus – Wyman's practices an integrated pest management strategy to have as little an impact as possible.
No Bees, No Blueberries
Flanagan says that just as the company was finding its legs with its sustainability efforts the bees, which constitute the lifeblood of the business, started mysteriously dying off.
“Again, looking to the triple bottom line and profitability, the cost for pollination went up by 80 percent in three years," he says. "This was because beekeepers had to go to considerable length to rebuild hives, and they had to pass that cost on to us, their clients.
“But in the larger sense, it comes down to no bees, no blueberries. There’s no alternative – the native pollinators are gone. That struck us as the ultimate sustainability issue.”
In addition to running his berry business, Flanagan says he's been forced to become a bee expert. What used to be a simple job of paying Wyman's beekeepers, he now also knows the intricacies of their livelihood.
“Now I know that beekeepers don’t make money on honey," he says, "they make money on renting their bees for pollination. You take an East coast beekeeper -- in December they go down to the orange groves in Florida, then in January, there is a caravan that goes to California to pollinate the almonds, then it’s cucumbers in North Carolina, apple blossoms in the Carolinas and Virginia. They follow the blossoms.”
There has been an explosion in the demand for almonds and blueberries, because these are healthy foods. Since they require pollination, there has also been an increased demand for bees. Even if native pollinators were still around, farmers would need to bring in European honeybees to pollinate all of the acres under cultivation.
CCD Ground Zero
Dave Hackenberg is the main beekeeper for Wyman’s. He's based in Pennsylvania and was the first one to bring empty hives to the attention of researchers at Penn State University.
Normally healthy bees know to remove dead bees from a hive. But a pile of dead bees tells a beekeeper he's got a bigger problem. But because of CCD, the hives were simply empty.
In December 2006, Hackenberg brought his hives to Florida, and noticed that there wasn’t any activity, but there also weren’t any dead bees at the mouth of the hives. So he opened up the hives and discovered that there weren’t any live bees inside, either. He brought the hives to Penn State, where researchers identified CCD as the culprit.
“Bees are amazing creatures, with incredible memories," says Flanagan. "No matter where they fly, within 3 or 4 miles, they always know how to get back to their hives. But for some reason, they weren’t getting there."
There is a usually a loss of hive strength over the winter, but the normal die-off might be around 10 to 15 percent, he explains. “The problem is that the 'normal' die-off has more than doubled, and that’s just not sustainable. Who knows what will happen if it jumps from 33 percent to 67 percent? So we need to understand it."
He continues, “There a million theories: cell phones, pesticides, nutrition, mites, fungus, but basically no one knows. This is scary if you’re a grower -- an almond grower in California or a cucumber grower in North Carolina, or a blueberry grower in Maine.”
Getting Political, Funding Research
Wyman's wanted and needed to get active and help solve CCD, so the company began taking measures to support beekeepers, and by getting active on Capitol Hill. Working with Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, Wyman's representatives sat in on congressional hearings. Later, Sen. Collins sent a letter to the UDSA urging action on CCD.
“The hearings were a great success in terms of creating public awareness, but after the headlines faded, CCD was still a problem," says Flanagan. "And even though it seemed like research money was being approved in D.C., nothing was really happening."
Wyman's then decided to put some money where its mouth was. In case you have just about any queries regarding in which as well as the way to utilize how to get rid of hives (http://svitnn.ru/user/BennettComeaux0
), you'll be able to e mail us with our internet site. The company was so impressed with and helped by Penn State, that it gave $50,000 toward funding CCD research at the university. The company has also issued a call to action for consumers, earmarking a portion of their wild blueberry purchases to fund further research.
How You Can Help
“The easiest way for people to help is to plant a garden in your backyard, to keep giving bees something that they can pollinate. If at least one thing is blooming for a couple of months, you can keep a native bee going.” Flanagan says.
“There’s also a terrific NGO organization, Pollinator.org which is working to raise awareness about CCD. They can always use donations to help with that work.”
Of course, Ed would also be happy if you went out and bought some Wyman’s wild blueberries! The company plans to continue to support research, with a portion of the proceeds from product sales going to fund projects. Look for “Help Us Save the Honey Bees” on Wyman’s packaging.
After noshing on blueberries, why not help scientists track the extent of CCD in your own backyard? Plant some sunflowers and monitor the bee activity online through The Great Sunflower Project.
Finally, you can also help by donating directly to the bee research program at Penn State University.
Want to Know More?
For more information about CCD, check out:
* The USDA Agricultural Research Service Q & A
* The UC Davis Department of Entomology.
* MAAREC – the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension ConsortiumBy Cat Lincoln of Tonic.com. Cat Lincoln is a Prius-driving writer and photographer based in San Francisco.