On an early summer morning in 1990, I happened to notice a roadside watermelon field outside the normal watermelon growing area here in South Carolina. The field looked beautiful with nice healthy plants already filling the rows, but there were only a few developing melons visible, when there should have been many.
I stopped to look. There were no beehives to be seen, nor were there any bees foraging in the field, though there were plenty of blossoms, and it was the prime time of day for them to be out. There was a scanty production of good melons; most of the developing melons were stunted, gnarly and misshappen. Obviously the farmer was headed for crop failure.
I knew the source of the problem, as this was my business, but I wanted more details and they were soon provided by a young man who came into the field with a shovel. He was knocking off the deformed melons, in hopes that good ones would form on later blossoms.
I felt bad for him when I heard his story. He was a high school student who planned to study agriculture in college. The watermelon field was his project to add to his college fund, as well as to gain experience.
He certainly got the latter, but, as to profit, he was losing big time. I told him about pollination and the need for bees. He said he’d talked with the Clemson agent about the project, but bees had never been mentioned. All his other cultural methods had followed the official recommendations.
The plants were beautiful; they were also planted so as to bear on the early and profitable market. But they weren’t producing a marketable crop.
It was a good illustration of Lieberg’s Law of the Minimum (or Law of the Limiting Factor). All the cultural factors were present, but one, and that was pollination. He had paid out to till the soil, buy seed, herbicide and fertilizer, the weather had been perfect; but he still was failing.
He told me when the first blossoms opened, he had seen a few “bumblebees” and they were coming from an old tobacco pack house, but they had stopped coming. This explained the few good melons that had formed. These were actually carpenter bees, not bumblebees and they had gone dormant after their normal spring flush here in South Carolina.
In all the time I was around this field, I never did see a single bumblebee or any other wild bee, which was unusual at that time. During the previous fall, we had experienced massive post-hurricane aerial spraying for mosquitoes during the peak of the goldenrod and aster bloom, and the applications were largely made (illegally) when bees were foraging on them in the warm fall afternoons. Since I had experienced terrible losses of my own honeybees at this time, I have no doubt that bumblebees and other wild bees had similar losses.
Well we hustled up some beehives to help out this young man, and he wound up with a huge second crop. But they ripened for the late market when they were worth practically nothing. Just think what he could have made, if he had caught the early market!
Watermelon growers, especially the smaller ones, used to rely on a large number of wild bees, such as bumblebees, for their crop pollination. Generally this was simply assumed and given no further thought. Today, growers are placing bee hives in their fields, or they are going out of the watermelon business. Background pollination has thinned to near the vanishing point, and today’s grower has to manage pollination just like any other cultural factor.
The Pollination Home Page was first conceived as an aid to help growers deal with pollinator decline and give them the how-tos of pollination management. Soon I was beseiged by e-mails from gardeners having pollination problems. And I began to think about how much of the food for our songbirds needs pollination.
Today this is a much larger problem than just an agricultural one. Pollinator decline is a major environmental issue today, yet it still doesn’t make it onto the list for many who otherwise care about our environment.
Now at the tail end of 2009, I am undertaking a major revision of The Pollination Home Page. I plan to keep and enhance the previous material that dealt with pollination and our food supply, and focused attention especially on honeybees. And I plan to enlarge the page to include much more on the totality of environmental issues of today.
Among other things we’ll be looking at climate change, native vs alien, degradation and repair of our soils, and many similar issues.
One good thing has happened since this page was begun. Originally we felt that we were a “voice in the wilderness.” Today pollination is getting much more attention (still not enough, but a lot better) – and we plan to include links to some of the best work in this area today, and maybe sometimes some critiques of those who get wild and whacky.
We’ve advanced a bit in technolgy. Our photos are better quality, and now video has come of age on the Internet. I hope to use these as tools to improve the look of the page. We also have this blog, which gives more opportunity for opinions, and even to stray a bit into other areas, as well as give readers a chance to comment.
Pollinator version 2.0 hopes to guide readers through the huge quantity of information and opinion now avaiable, from the persective of someone who has lived pollination for his career and much of his life.
So welcome aboard, readers, and please come back soon. We are off to a new adventure!
The Old Drone