How important are the busy bees of apple orchards? They may just be the most important members of the apple production team! Bees work hard from spring through October to help produce a successful apple crop. Without bees, apples trees would not produce any apples at all. That is why apple trees are considered “self-sterile.” With the help of honey bees, apple trees are cross-pollinated and produce juicy, crisp apples. Here at Cold Hollow Cider Mill, we buy apples from nearby Vermont apple orchards to produce our signature cider. Our relationships with some of these growers go back more than 40 years, and they look forward to doing business with us because they know we buy a lot of apples!
Honey bees begin their busy season in the spring once the leaf buds unfold and flower buds begin to grow. The nectar and scent of the petals attract bees to the apple flowers. However, the bees are not visiting the apple flowers to help produce the tasty apples we all enjoy. Honey bees visit the flowers to collect nectar and pollen for food for their whole colonies and cross-pollinating the apple orchard is a fortuitous byproduct of their natural habits. When honey bees land on flowers to collect nectar, they brush up against the pistil (female part of the flower consisting of the stigma, style, and an ovary) of the flower and leave pollen grains on the stigma causing pollination to occur. Bees do not typically fly directly from one apple tree to a compatible tree to help pollinate trees, although that would be very helpful. Members of a hive often work together to retrieve nectar from one single tree. Once they have collected nectar and pollen, they fly back to the hive to unload. While in the hive, they rub against other members of the hive who have been collecting pollen and nectar from different varieties and then they all bring back different pollen to different trees. It only takes 2-3 hours for a good-sized orchard to become pollinated.
Cross-pollination is the process of transferring pollen from different apple tree varieties to one another. Pollen must be transferred from the anthers (the part of a stamen that contains the pollen) to the stigmas (the top of a flower’s pistil, which is the female part of the flower). Honey bees are the most efficient carriers of pollen. Although the flowers are pollinated, fertilization will only occur if the flower has been fertilized with compatible pollen. Apple orchards are designed to have compatible tree varieties close enough together to allow for them to receive pollen from one another. Once the pollen grains on the stigma begin to grow down the style (stem of the stigma), the sperms of the pollen combine with the ovules in the ovary. Fertilized ovules produce seeds that eventually become lush apples. 4
If you want to see busy honey bees in action, check out Honey Bee Corner when you visit the mill. Honey Bee Corner has an actual live observation hive behind glass allowing visitors to see the honey bees at work up close. The observation hive has a tube that allows bees to fly outside to retrieve pollen. All summer long they remain busy. Here is also where their best work is produced, fresh honey that is available for purchase in our store and online.