Berry grower laments a lack of bees

BERRY BAD: South Canterbury berry grower Donald Butler laments a lack of bees to pollinate his crop.
BERRY BAD: South Canterbury berry grower Donald Butler laments a lack of bees to pollinate his crop.

Long-standing South Canterbury berry grower Donald Butler has a bee in his bonnet and it's all about the lack of bees in his blackcurrant orchard.

He and wife Jackie have been berry growers for more than 50 years in the Waimate district but the lack of pollination in their blackcurrant orchard, which covers 30 to 40 hectares, has Mr Butler worried.

"Pollination in the orchard has been good except for the last couple of years, when canola has been planted on a neighbouring farm," he said.

"We bring in the hives, but because the flowering season of currants and canola coincides, the bees prefer the canola and just fly next door.

"This means we get very little pollination on the currants and our crop is down."

In an effort to boost the pollination of his blackcurrant crop last year, Mr Butler utilised artificial pollination methods, plus bee hives, and also tried to encourage bumblebees, but without much success.

"We worked with FruitFed, who supplied some liquid pollen, but the pollination strike was awful and the crop was down," he said.

"This year, we haven't hired any hives and have relied on the wind doing the job for us.

"But the crop is down again."

Bringing hives into the orchard is costly.

"We hire 50 hives from a local beekeeper, at a cost of $100 per hive," he said.

"There's not much of a return for the beekeeper because there's very little honey in canola."

Blackcurrants, which are primarily exported to Europe, yield the grower between $1 and $1.30 per punnet, but Mr Butler says it is "not a very buoyant market".

"New Zealand blackcurrant growers do well if Poland has a big frost," he said.

Efforts to keep the bees in their own backyard and boost the pollination of the currant orchard may see the Butler's Berry Farm growing its own small plantation of canola next season.

"We have certainly looked at planting canola between the rows of the currants," Mr Butler said.

"The rows are three metres wide and we think this would encourage the bees to have canola for lunch and currants for afternoon tea.

"We also encourage canola plantings to be done a little later, which means the currants would have finished flowering (and hopefully have been pollinated) before the canola comes into flower, but time will tell."

While changes of land use, in particular to dairying and irrigation and crops such as canola, should be seen as positive, according to Mr Butler, all sectors should be able to work together.

"For example, irrigation could be turned off during the day so that it doesn't harm or drown the bees, and plantings of crops such as canola could be staggered."

With the currant crop looking less than promising for this season anyway, harvesting of five hectares of delicious strawberries (which require no bees) is in full swing at Butler's Berry Farm and the fruit has been selling well from the farm and at regional farmers' markets.

Butler's will also begin harvesting the first crop of raspberries shortly and the second round of raspberries will be ready for harvest from March onward.

The Timaru Herald