HOOD RIVER, Oregon – Grower Brad Fowler walked into the cherry orchard on yet another May day when the temperatures struggled to climb above 50 degrees and a chill wind swept through the long rows of trees at the tail end of their annual bloom.
Fowler searched for signs of honeybees doing the vital work of pollination that sets fruit as they move from blossom to blossom. On a warm day, he might find 20 bees in each tree, their flights creating a steady hum. On this morning, there was an unsettling quietness. He could only find a few bees spread about the trees he examined.
“I am surprised they are out at all, as cold as it is,” Fowler said.
Here in the Hood River valley in northern Oregon, and all throughout the prime Pacific Northwest cherry-growing regions, the cool spring weather has often kept the bees – billions of which are brought into the region’s fruit orchards each year – inside, or close by, the hives of their wooden box colonies.
The low temperatures have resulted in slower and later flowering of the cherry trees. In some orchards, when temperatures prime for bee flight finally arrived, the window for blossom pollination had already closed.
B. J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, says the challenges in pollinating this crop, along with damage from the cold, are expected to reduce this year’s cherry crop by 35% compared with the average volume of the past five years.
“There’s bud kill from the cold, and lack of pollination, and I’d say that’s probably split 50-50,” said Thurlby, who forecasts a late start to the harvest season, probably June 5-6.
Most of the Northwest’s cherries are grown in Washington, where in 2021 they ranked as the fifth most valuable crop. In Yakima, hub of one of the state’s cherry-growing areas, the average high for April was 11-degrees below the mean, according to the National Weather Service.
This also has been a wet spring, with snowpacks in many areas of the Cascades at least 130% of average, and in the Oregon basin above the Hood River Valley, more than double the average as of May-12, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. This is in stark contrast to some other areas of the West, including California, which is in the grip of extreme drought. Water restrictions are in place in the Los Angeles area and farmers can’t use as much water for irrigation, forcing some to let land go unused.
Native bees have been dying for decades. Then, commercial bee entities were hit with viruses and are dying as well. Those farmers and those in agriculture who rely on native bees have been, basically, left to fend for themselves and given little help. Government money has gone into protecting the industrial bee people. And, while I can also support that (almost all honey comes from that / and most farms are pollinated by renting bee hives), more needs to be done to protect native species of bees.