Yesterday, I arose at 05:30 to go with Mr. Claude Ivert to take colonies of bees for pollination of apricots in the delta region of the Rhone River, called the Camargue, about 70 kilometers from here. We took the Autoroute du Soleil from Aix which traverses Provence and soon arrived at the the village of St. Gilles just west of the best-known town in the region, Arles, in the heart of the Camargue. This flat region is ideal for all kinds of agriculture. It is famous for rice production and the domestic (horses, bulls) and non domestic (flamingos) animals that inhabit this huge flood plain made by the Grand Rhone and Petit Rhone rivers.
The apricots were in full flower, some past their prime and in petal fall. The white of the bloom contrasted with the grayness of the morning. We hoped for sun, but were to be disappointed in the dawn as the clouds persisted; there was a light wind (mistral) and some rain threatened in late morning. We saw very few pollinating insects in spite of the amount of bloom. The honey bees were not flying in the relatively cold (9-11 degrees C) weather. The concern is that the prime cross pollination time will be lost with the bad weather. Today it is relatively more sunny in Aix, perhaps that will also be the case in the Apricot growing region.
St. Gilles is a large fruit growing region, but marked by rather small landholdings of independent land owners. Thus, one sees a good many smaller blocks of fruit trees than would be expected in fruit-growing areas in the United States; by the same token, the commercial pollinating effort is less mechanized. Apricot and peach seemed to prevail here, but I also saw apples. Most apricots were blooming, but the peaches and apples had yet to blossom. I was informed the almond-growing region was more to the west. Apricots are the prime targets for pollination efforts here; peaches are much more attractive to bees. Apricot trees had plastic bags of water stuffed with blooms from the “pollinizer” variety to ensure adequate cross pollination. I also saw “pollen inserts” being used on colonies. Pollen is placed into a special contraption at the hive entrance. As the bees exit, pollen is dusted onto their bodies which then is distributed in the field. Much can go wrong with apricot pollination it seems, whether it be wind, rain or cold.
We put colonies into the blocks of plants and distributed them around so that more than four at one location was unusual. We distributed our colonies by hand, sometimes to fairly isolated parts of the orchards. In one case, two colonies were piled onto a hand cart and wheeled down an embankment about 100 yards. Mr. Ivert said he had some 120 colonies in this area for pollination. He is a member of one of the GRAPPs, French beekeeping organizations devoted to commercial pollination.
We also looked at Mr. Ivert’s five-frame standard nucs (called “ruchettes” here) that were pollinating strawberries under plastic tunnels. Each tunnel is about 8 feet wide, four feet high, perhaps 80 yards long, and had one nucleus placed in the end that could be manipulated by lifting the plastic cover. In most, the plastic cover appeared to be permanently open beside the nuc. Mr. Ivert indicated that this small population was strong enough to deal with the amount of strawberry blooms in each tunnel. Again, the colonies were not active because of the weather. Those we examined were distinctly variable in strength and some we had to super up to provide more room. Evidence of pesticide kill was present in a couple; all colonies we examined were alive, but some were quite weak due, presumably because of the kill. Mr. Ivert said that many bees get disoriented in the tunnel and cannot find their way home.
When we returned to Aix, we dropped off another five-frame nuc on the city’s outskirts. A grower needed them to pollinate some strawberries inside a large permanent greenhouse. This farmer specialized in “organic” products and was growing a huge assortment of fruits and vegetables for the local market. The bees were simply placed at the end of three long rows of strawberries in full bloom.
Mr. Ivert and the grower discussed the relative merits of using bumblebees for pollination. Mr. Ivert indicated that he had tried to do some work with bumblebees, but found it too labor intensive and. had given it up in the end.