Beekeepers at Bejo strive to breed top-quality colonies and keep the bee population healthy. Bees are the seed company’s main pollinators, helping to fertilise 80% of its crops. Varroa mites pose a huge threat to the insects. Research and selection aimed at promoting bee health are therefore of crucial importance, says Bejo apiarist Bram Vroegop.

Bees are pollination champions, Vroegop points out; if we lose them, we’ll have a big problem. The reason the insects are so effective is that they can be deployed in a controlled manner in large numbers. Each hive a beekeeper places in a greenhouse or a field contains a colony of 20,000 to 40,000 pollinators. “The health of the bees is very important,” says. “A colony has to be in peak condition. Bees have an unerring sense of when a crop is ready for pollination. And the quality of the bees determines the extent of pollination.”

Strong colonies

Bejo has more than 15,000 bee colonies around the world, 1,200 of them in the Netherlands. Each colony consists of a queen, 20,000 to 40,000 workers, and 500 drones. The queen lays eggs, and the drones are there only to fertilise her. The workers, which only live for six weeks, do the pollinating. Bee research and selection focuses mainly on varroa mites, the primary cause of bee mortality, Vroegop says. “To keep the bee population as healthy as possible, we select the strongest colonies and use them for further breeding. At Bejo we don’t just improve vegetable crops but also bee colonies.”

In selecting colonies, breeders look at four traits: foraging behaviour, tendency to swarm, hygienic behaviour (how well the bees cope with disease), and varroa sensitive hygiene (VSH), or resistance to varroa mites. “We breed our own queens from our very best colonies, so that we get very healthy and vital colonies for optimum pollination,” Vroegop says. “In our research we also look for ways of using nutrition and better apicultural techniques to develop stronger bee colonies.”

Allium pollination

For greenhouse pollination, a crop specialist determines when it’s time to introduce bees – often, it’s when 10% to 20% of the crop is flowering. He or she also decides when pollination is complete. The number of hives needed depends on the size of the greenhouse. Flight behaviour is continuously monitored.

Alliums are pollinated between early June and mid-July; a hive can remain in a greenhouse for three to four weeks. Flower fields are planted outside the greenhouses to give the bees a place to fully recover after pollination. “Pollination weakens the colonies,” Vroegop explains. “It's important to give the insects a chance to recuperate when they come out of the greenhouse. If necessary, we feed them sugar water.” Every evening the bees return to the greenhouse. There, they clean themselves for the following day. This prevents pollination with extraneous pollen from the flower fields, the apiarist says. “Bees are very hygienic creatures. So it's important that we work in a hygienic way too.”

Bejo’s beekeepers are taking part in a varroa mite research study with Inholland University of Applied Sciences, Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences, and the Arista Bee Research foundation. “In this research project we're looking for a genetic marker to see if a colony is varroa mite-resistant,” Vroegop says.