Apple Pollinating Bees and Rare Varieties of Southern Apples

Alarmist reports from the sensationalist media, suggesting an eventual end to the availability of fruits and vegetables because of colony collapse disorder, are completely unfounded. (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2015/06/12/pleistocene-pollinators ) In North America the honeybee (Apis mellifera) is a non-native invasive species.  The decline of this species due to this mysterious disorder may cause high honey prices, but it will not impact the pollination of most agricultural crops.  Honeybees are just 1 of thousands of pollinating insect species. A recent study of bees in north Georgia apple orchards found that honeybees comprised just 7% of the total number of bees captured.  Moreover, native bees are much more efficient pollinators than honeybees.

Researchers surveyed bees in 4 orchards in north Georgia: Mercier Orchard with 150,000 trees planted on 200 acres, Hillside Orchard with 40,000 trees, Tiger Mountain Orchard with over 1000 trees, and Mountain View Orchard with just under 1000 trees.  The scientists captured a total of 2025 bees consisting of 128 species and 30 genera.  The most common species of bee caught in their traps was the hawthorn adrena (Adrena crataegi).  It comprised 31% of the bees in the survey.  It’s named after the hawthorn bush, a common species inhabiting open woods that produces a small apple-like fruit.  This species of bee readily adapted to pollinating apple blossoms after Europeans introduced the fruit to America.  Hawthorns are in the same family as apples.  The 2nd and 3rd most common bees caught in the traps were the wasp-like bees–Lasioglossum (dialectus) imitatum and L. (d.) pilosum.  Bee families in order of abundance were the Andrenidae (mining bees) composing 46.5%, the Halictidae (sweat bees) composing 34.2%, the Apidae (honeybees and bumblebees) composing 17.1%, the Megachilidae (mason and leafcutter bees) composing 1.8%, and Collectidae (polyester bees) composing .4%.  Incidentally, the authors of this study, even with outside help, couldn’t identify 10% of the species they trapped.  There are still many species of insects in North America yet to be described and named by entomologists.  All these species of bees pollinate a wide range of native and non-native plants.

Most of the species of bees in the Andrenidae family are solitary, but the hawthorn adrena does nest communally.  The authors of this study suggest the hawthorn adrena as a replacement for honeybees in areas where the latter have suffered severe population declines.

Andrena? - Andrena crataegi

Adrena crataegi is by far the most abundant species of bee that pollinates apples in North Georgia.  It’s native to North America and could be used to replace honeybees used for pollinating fruit.

Lasioglossum imitatum

The wasp-like bee (Lasioglossum imitatum) is the 2nd most common pollinating bee in north Georgia apple orchards.

European settlers planted apple trees in North America as soon as they arrived on the continent.  Apples were most important for the production of hard cider, a substitute for beer in regions where barley crops were unreliable.  Alcoholic beverages were considered an essential part of daily living during the colonial era.  Some rich planters imported young trees bearing the highest quality fruit known in Europe, but most settlers started their orchards from seeds they obtained at little expense.  Apple trees grown from seeds don’t produce the same quality fruit as their parent.  Most fruit from seedling apple trees is of poor quality.  Twigs from the rare tree that does produce good fruit are grafted on root stocks of other apple trees.  That is how good varieties of apples are cultivated.

Settlers moved inland and planted large orchards from apple seeds.  The majority of these trees produced fruit that was used to fatten hogs but served no other purpose.  A few trees produced fruit that was good enough to feed members of the household.  A few mature apple trees would provide plenty of fruit, even for the large farm families of the time.  Other apple trees produced fruit with certain qualities particularly suited for certain purposes.  Some trees produced apples that more readily fermented into cider and vinegar.  Some of the best cider apples were considered unpalatable fresh off the tree but made a superior drink when fermented.  Other trees bore apples that were only of fair eating but kept without refrigeration until late spring.  Still others bore palatable fruit as early as June.  A farm with a long-keeping variety and an early bearer could have a year round supply of apples.

Carolina Red June Fruit

Most apples ripen from August-October, but the red June apple is prized for ripening earlier.

 

The horse apple was one of the most popular apples in the south before 1930.  Not great for fresh-eating, the vigorous trees reportedly produce large crops of apples that are good for cider, drying, and jelly.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew Hewe’s crabapple for cider.

Johnson Keeper apples originated in Mississippi some time before 1885.  They keep until late spring without refrigeration.

The Mattamuskeet apple is a very rare apple originating near Lake Mattamuskeet, North Carolina. It’s known for its long-keeping quality.  Some claimed this apple could keep for years without refrigeration.  This variety has an interesting origin story that may or may not be true.  Supposedly, an Indian found the seed of this apple in the gizzard of a goose he shot along the shores of Lake Mattamuskeet.  He planted this seed and gave the twigs (scions) to European settlers.

Some of these antique apple varieties were better suited for drying and could be kept indefinitely.  Varieties that disintegrated in stews to add a tart sweet flavor increased the repertoire of country cooks.  Using apples to season pioneer stews of wild game precedes the common use now of tomatoes in stew.

Over 1800 varieties of apples were grown in southern orchards between 1600-1930.  The most successful varieties were well adapted to the southern climate with its long humid summers and mild winters.  Apples require a certain amount of cold weather or they won’t bear well.  Many varieties grown in the south had a low chilling requirement.  They were also resistant to local diseases.  Many of these old-timey varieties became rare or even extinct when family farmers left the land to take factory jobs during the middle of the 20th century.

Fewer than 20 varieties of apples are sold in grocery stores today.  These very sweet, all purpose apples probably do taste better than most of the antique varieties but lack the characteristics that made the older types better for certain purposes such as the making of apple butter, jelly, or cider. In recent years 2 major brands of hard cider have begun to appear on the beer aisle in grocery stores.  They both taste like yeasty bad home brew.  The makers of these brands might want to experiment with some of the older varieties of cider apples, so they can improve their product.

References:

Calhoun, Creighton

Old Southern Apples: A Comprehensive History and Description for Collectors, Growers, and Fruit Enthusiasts

Chelsea Green Publishing 2010

Schlueter, Mark; and Nicholas Stewart

“Native Bee (Hymenoptera: Apoidea) Abundance and Diversity in North Georgia Apple Orchards throughout the 2010 Growing Season (March to October)”

Southeastern Naturalist 14 (4) 2015

 

 

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