Our strange “winter that wasn't” was quickly followed by a spring marked with abnormally warm weather. March had no lion’s roar; it started off mild, and by the middle of the month, temperatures climbed into the high 70s and 80s.
There was no gradual greening of spring; everything went into fast forward. One day the trees were bare, and the next they were full of leaves. My early season daffodils lasted a day before the flowers melted in the heat, and the mid-season varieties didn't bloom at all. The late-season bloomers are flowering now, along with the azaleas; they normally flower at the same time, but not until late-May.
We harvested our asparagus in late March; planted next to the house, it was warmed even more by the siding, and was ready to pick nearly two months early!
In the orchards, the apricots, peaches, plums and cherries seemed to all bloom at the same time, and the apples and blueberries were way ahead of schedule.
The weather was the topic of conversation wherever you went; the potential disaster brought on by this early, two-week-long bout of heat was on everyone’s mind. In an area known as Michigan’s Fruit Belt, what would happen to the crops if temperatures dropped back down to normal?
The temperatures did drop. Fruit growers struggled with the frost and freezing temperatures in April, but there was another problem that occurred during the accelerated rate at which the trees bloomed in March: the bees weren't here to pollinate.
Many of the commercial beekeepers in Michigan over-winter their hives in Florida; approximately 450,000 colonies of bees spend their winters in the Sunshine State. Others are trucked to California, where they are contracted to pollinate the almond orchards. Most of these colonies aren't ready to return to Michigan until mid-April.
Not all colonies are sent to warmer climates for the winter. The good news is that the beekeepers who keep their hives in Michigan year-round report that the mild winter helped in keeping their bees strong and healthy.
The honeybees get top billing in the cast of pollinators, but wild bees are essential players too. Bumble bees especially play a vital role in blueberry and cranberry pollination. While Colony Collapse Disorder has severely affected the population of honeybees, our native bees throughout the country are declining in numbers also. They are not affected by the same diseases and parasites as honeybees, but habitat loss and pesticide use are cited as threats, with the possible result being extinction of some bee species.
Another problem in agricultural areas is the large monocultures of bee-pollinated crops. These provide food sources for a few weeks only. A lack of nearby flowering wild plants can result in famine or unhealthy colonies. A variety of plants with different bloom periods is crucial in providing season-long nectar sources.
The decline of bee populations affects everyone. One of the seminars we are offering at the nursery this year is about bees and their vital role in food production. A County Extension Agent who is also a hobby beekeeper is coming in to speak to our customers to explain the benefits of having bees in the garden, how to attract them, and the basics of beekeeping. A great article, Plant Pollination: A Bounty to Buzz About, in the last issue (March/April 2012) of GRIT covers much of the same information that will be discussed in the seminar. Check it out.
For more information on how colony collapse disorder has endangered our food supply, see the book A Spring Without Bees by Michael Schacker.