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Drought hits crops, bees, bottom line

Beekeeper Jeff Pryjomski will have less honey this year. Photo by M.Keck (click for larger version)
July 25, 2012 - If you did a rain dance in celebration of the precipitation last week, you're not alone.

Michigan, like 50 percent of the United States, is suffering from drought conditions. While Michigan's drought isn't as severe as some other states, farmers in Davisburg and Clarkston are feeling the impact of the hot, dry weather, and so are consumers.

Mike Lorimer, owner of Rattalee Lake Tree Farm, planted 2,000 new seedlings this year, and he believes "35 to 40 percent of our seedlings have been lost" due to the drought. Lorimer doesn't have an irrigation system and said he's "at a decision point about hiring a water truck."

The expense of a truck is not the only strain on Lorimer's pocketbook; he's also missed out on potential sales at the Clarkston Farmer's Market. "We intended on being a part of the Farmer's Market, but felt it was too much of a risk to bring the trees and held off on digging," he said.

Davisburg grower Sylvia Ritchie has been able to make it to the market with her excess produce. To do so, she starts watering at 4 a.m. and has had to water more often because of the lack of rain, but the growth of some of her vegetables has been stunted.

"Greens become bitter in this type of weather," Ritchie explained. She's also noticed her "melons and squashes that usually like hot weather wilt[ing] because of the heat."

Clarkston Christmas tree farmer Jim Armstrong has also been affected by the drought. The needles of his evergreens are "turning yellow and falling off" and he has "to trim more than normal to get rid of dead branches."

Although Armstrong's trees are still maturing, their growth is "not as fast as usual," he said.

Typically his pines grow a foot each year, but they've only been growing 2-3 inches. Jim's Christmas Tree farm doesn't have an irrigation system, so Armstrong can only "rely on Mother Nature" for watering.

The lack of rain is only the tip of the iceberg, however. Armstrong also provides a bee swarm capture service, and with temperatures breaking 100 degrees, "we're seeing more swarms this spring and summer," he said. Temperatures are usually between 85- 90 degrees inside a hive, Armstrong said. So, when it is hotter outside, bees will leave their hives and don't stay inside to make honey. Armstrong has already picked up seven swarms, one of which was lodged in the grill and radiator compartment of an automobile.

According to Armstrong, the bees are swarming because they're seeking cooler places. Swarms of worker bees fly in circles around their queen and can travel for 3-4 days seeking a notch in a tree or a hole in a house. On the other hand, bees may choose to stay at their hive and fan it with their wings to keep the heat down, but the fanning expends energy they might use otherwise to gather pollen.

Even if the bees aren't fanning or swarming to keep cool, they aren't necessarily collecting pollen to make honey because "many nectar-producing flowers aren't producing nectar," said Roger Sutherland, former president of Southeastern Michigan Beekeepers Association (SEMBA).

If the bees can't find nectar, they "use up honey stores" they've developed previously, Sutherland said.

The drought has added to the problems caused by the unusually warm March and late April frost, Sutherland explained. The blossoms that opened in early spring were destroyed by the later freeze, and their nectar is now unavailable, said Sutherland.

"Bees mainly collect nectar in spring," he explained, "their timing was thrown off."

The mild winter allowed more bees and other insects to survive, but with more bees, the need for honey consumption increases, and the bees consume what they can't gather from flowers. If they eat up their honey stores, they won't survive the winter and beekeepers like Jeff Pryjomski of Davisburg may have to supplement with sugar water.

The population rise of certain insects due to the mild winter is another problem for bees. For example, wax moths will infest a hive. "Their grubs tunnel through the comb and make a spider-webby mess," said Pryjomski. Mites can also become a problem.

"Last year, as fast as I took honey, the bees were putting more out," Pryjomski said. "This year, I don't know."

Pryjomski has 42 hives, and his bees produced 47 five-gallon buckets of honey by this time last summer.

"Not this year," he said.

Since the bees are overheated and have missed out on the pollen of the usual spring and summer blossoms, Pryjomski believes "our next biggest hope is the goldenrod, but without rain," there won't be many goldenrods producing pollen.

"If you don't have pollination, you don't get a harvest," said Jim Armstrong.

Each time a honey bee touches down on a plant, they get doused in pollen. Male and female plants rely on pollen-covered bees to help them reproduce.

The lack of pollination coupled with low precipitation has caused many growers to opt out of farmers' markets. According to Clarkston Farmers' Market Manager Anissa Howard, "farms have called and delayed."

Large blueberry farms, which usually produce lots of berries only have a few, she said. One farmer cancelled altogether while Howard's beekeeper "has a tenth of the honey she usually has."

Some Farmers' Market shoppers have asked Howard, "where are all the farmers we usually see?" Howard notes without a watering system, many are losing their crops on large farms whereas gardeners with smaller, easier-to-water plots are having better luck.

It isn't just the seasonal local produce markets feeling the pinch, however.

Dale Hollandsworth of Kroger's Consumer Communications department said, "It could be a difficult year in terms of available crops."

The reduced amount of available produce like corn and apples could raise prices.

"If cost of commodities go up, the customers will see a raise in cost," Hollandsworth stated.

While Kroger makes "a concerted effort to sell Michigan products," if local producers don't have crops available, costumers will see fewer Michigan-grown foods, he said.

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