Blueberry Barrens

We brought the bees to the blueberry barrens of Cherryfield, Maine in May 1999. When the bees pollinate the blueberry flowers, the fruit crop is increased by around 300% compared to relying on the wild bees and other insects for pollination.

When the land is cleared, the blueberry crop comes up the next year. The wild, low growing blueberries do not need to be planted here; they have always been in the soil.

The black bears must celebrate the arrival of the bees. Electric fences around each yard of bee hives and constant patrols throughout the night minimize the number of hives they tear apart looking for the next meal.

The blueberries will grow throughout the summer and are harvested in August.

Research has shown that the antioxidants in blueberries may slow the aging process, reverse memory loss and improve vision.

For the colonies of honey bees to pollinate the blueberries of Cherryfield and Washington County, Maine each May, there is a Herculean effort to gather the bees together from scattered bee yards in the north and then transport them in the late fall. The bees are moved as far south as South Carolina or Florida where the hives build up with young bees/brood. The following May, they are transported by tractor trailer back up to northern Maine in time to pollinate the blueberry flowers.

Because of the scale of the blueberry farm, over 100 tractor trailers had to bring in these honey bees. After overwintering in the north, the colonies of honey bees would not be strong enough to pollinate all of the blueberry flowers when they were in bloom, and so the bees have to go south first, build up over the winter, and then return north to pollinate. The hives have a lot of time bouncing around on highways. When you try and trick nature, there is always a trade off.

As a farmer, you never stop thinking about how to make agriculture work. When Cherryfield Foods sent three checks, totaling $37,000 I thought that I had cracked the code.

Then we saw the stress that these honey bees were under. Every time they are moved, 10% of them die.  In Maine, the bees were on 10,000 acres of blueberry barrens for 30 days.  This is monoculture, with only one type of flower for the bees to feed on for a month and does not provide balanced nutrition for the bees.

In June 1999, we brought the bees home to the Champlain Valley of Vermont and St. Lawrence River Valley of northern New York State. They were weak from being on only blueberry flowers for 30 days and from being moved on three long trips in the last six months. They hardly made any “surplus” honey for us to extract that year.

pulling the net over a load of honey bees. Cartwheel Landing, Pee Dee River, Mullins, South Carolina. Now the bees have a three day ride to Cherryfield, Maine.

We never took the bees to Maine again.

This work was vital in the path to use raw honey in Barr Hill gin and then vodka. Agriculture is the foundation of every glass of Barr Hill gin, Barr Hill vodka and our rye whiskey, and it is the toughest part of the supply chain of farm to market. The farmers have to keep exploring new crops, learning and growing.

-Todd Hardie

Todd Hardie is an organic farmer at Thornhill Farm in Greensboro Bend, Vermont.