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Updated: Dec 22, 2022

Unlike most inputs that go into producing a crop, pollination can be frustrating for growers because success depends on variables outside of their control. Agriculture (and business in general) is easy when recurring problems can be solved with reliable solutions. I’m reminded of the saying, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Things like spraying, pruning and irrigation are custom-built hammers designed to drive specific nails until they’re flush.

An apt analogy

I like the hammer and nail analogy because proven solutions (hammers) exist to solve many of the problems (nails) growers face throughout the season. Pollination is a problem and renting hives is a solution, but it’s not a hammer and nail relationship. It’s more like making a key to open a complex lock using nothing but an artisanal foot-powered lathe.

Beekeepers spend decades honing their skills to become expert lathe operators, but it’s nearly impossible to produce a key without a few microscopic imperfections. Growers struggle to understand why the ancient lathe can’t be upgraded to a cutting-edge CNC machine that delivers consistent accuracy within a fraction of an atom.

Clashing perspectives

Growers and beekeepers can do all the right things leading up to bloom and still end up with poor pollination. Naturally, the grower will look for answers to understand what went wrong to avoid making the same mistake again. But digging for answers often amplifies the grower’s frustration. They don’t want to hear that bee flight was hampered by cold, rainy weather. To a grower who paid top dollar for a job to be done, that sounds like a lame excuse. It’s easy to write off your beekeeper as ineffective and unconcerned with holding up their end of the deal.

Conflict arises because there are fundamental differences in how growers and beekeepers approach their work. Growers are used to a having variety of hammers in their toolbox to drive different types of well-understood nails. Beekeepers rarely have the right hammer for the nails they face because the nails are constantly evolving into new shapes and sizes. They’re used to “MacGyver-ing” the tools they have on hand into something that has a chance to get the job done.

Take Varroa treatments for example. Beekeepers must keep the parasitic mite under control to have any hope of keeping their business alive. But killing a tiny bug that thrives in the home of a bigger, more sensitive bug is no simple task. To make matters worse, Varroa are known for rapidly developing resistance to the chemical treatments that were once effective at keeping them in check. Beekeepers respond by increasing how often they treat for Varroa, switching up which chemicals are used, and experimenting with different application methods. This is a problem that requires finesse and a healthy dose of trial and error—far from a hammer and nail scenario.

Final thoughts

The purpose of this post is to offer a glimpse at a beekeeper’s perspective, not to suggest that growers have it easy. Growers face plenty of new challenges that require difficult decisions in the course of a season. The difference is that solving new challenges with ingenuity is the norm for beekeepers. They’re not accustomed to silver-bullet solutions. They operate with the expectation that solutions are bound to fail and adaptation is inevitable. It’s worth considering this perspective next time you’re frustrated about pollination.

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