Is The Humble Bumble Bee Really The Unsung Hero Of The Vineyard…

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The grapes we grow for wine don’t technically need bees. In fact, the cultivated “common” grapevine, known as the Vitis vinifera, is hermaphroditic, meaning it possesses flowers with functional pistils (which act as ovaries) and stamens (which produce pollen), allowing these vines to self-pollinate.

But, it may seem surprising that despite this, wine growers have long invested time and money into designing vineyards that attract bees. And as bee populations decline globally, vintners are working even harder to bring bees to their vineyards.

So, why are bees so vital to the vineyard, and what are winemakers doing to foster them? We break down everything you need to know.

How Bees Impact the Vineyard

purple wine grapes close upGetty Images

Improve Soil Nutrition

Bees, when confronted with a rotating buffet of snacks all year, return the farmer’s favors by helping to create healthier, richer and more water-retentive soils. This is because bees help to pollinate and care for cover crops, which can be vital to a vineyard’s health—this is especially true in drought-plagued California.

“Cover crops have been shown to promote soil health by improving soil’s organic matter, preventing erosion and raising soil moisture holding capacity,” says Sally Camm, Grgich Hills Estate communication manager in Napa. “They are also a key way to encourage a diversity of microbes in the soil, which is especially important when you’re working within a monocrop like grapes.”

The Grgich Hills Estate has been certified organic since 2006, and plants bee-friendly cover crops, like mustard and clover. “What we find is that whether or not a cover crop succeeds is totally dependent on bees,” says Camm. “If the bees aren’t interested, the cover crops don’t seem to take.”

Attract Helpful Insects

Bees are also important because they protect vines against less desirable critters, and encourage better ones to stick around. “When you provide food for bees, their presence and the success of the plants they pollinate attract other beneficial insects,” says Katja Hogendoorn, Ph.D., a research fellow who specializes in bees at the University of Adelaide’s School of Agriculture, Food and Wine.

Their presence attracts “parasitic wasps, for example. The [parasitic wasps] feed on leafhoppers, mealybugs and moths and other insects that are bad for vineyards.”

Better Grape Development and Reduce Bunch Rot

In a study Hogendoorn published in Apidologie, she found that honeybees actively remove calyptra—a protective cap that covers grape flowers until bloom. By removing the caps, these honeybees may benefit the development of the grape berries and grape bunches. This is especially true in Pinot Noir, where, she wrote in the study, the “persistence of the calyptra can cause the development of malformed grapes and bunches.”

The presence of bees may also help reduce the occurrence of bunch rot, hypothesizes Hogendoorn. “But more careful study needs to be done before we can be certain,” she adds.

How Wineries Are Fostering Bees

Bernat Sort Costa, Grgich Hills Estate’s regenerative organic research manager, explains that they either cultivate or already had natural plant and tree-rich areas around each vineyard to boost biodiversity and attract pollinators. And at their 155-acre American Canyon property (just over 10 miles south of Napa), the vineyard team has planted more than 350 native trees, shrubs and flowering forbs in recent years.

“The selection is designed to maximize diversity with native, drought-resistant species, while also ensuring we have plants that flower throughout the year to provide nutrients to bees and insects,” says Costa. “Across our properties, we have dedicated gardens where we grow plants needed for biodynamic preparations, as well as flowering plants for insects and birds.”

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To help do this, Grgich has teamed up with the nonprofit Apis Arborea to install beehives in tree trunks and they also have conventional bee boxes.

Joel Sokoloff, vineyard and ranch manager at the biodynamically farmed 240-acre Soter Vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, also keeps a few hives of honeybees but says he is primarily focused on attracting native bees and pollinators.

Sokoloff says that his team sows a collection of clovers, peas and vetches in the vines, all of which appeal to different species of bees. In the surrounding fields, they plant brassicas, phacelia and other flowers like flax and meadowfoam, which spring up throughout the year, plus orchards and gardens that contain cultivated bee-friendly plants, like squash, peppers and sunflowers.

Soter Vineyards is one of six Willamette Valley vineyards working with the Oregon Bee Friendly Wine project, says Andony Melathopoulos, an assistant professor of pollinator health in the Department of Horticulture at Oregon State University, who sees the program and actions of concerned vintners as foundational for native bee survival.

“The biggest challenge for wild bees is getting enough of the right kinds of flowering plant species in the landscape,” he says. By planting more pollinator-friendly plants in and around vineyards, “Oregon viticulturists can lead the world in promoting bee biodiversity.”

The Loss of Bees and the Larger Impact

Wooden Bee Hives Rest In A Springtime Vineyard And Cherry Tree OrchardGetty Images

Though bees have long been a priority to farmers, attracting them to crops is more important now than ever. Around 90% of commercially produced food crops in the U.S. depend on bees and other pollinators to reproduce, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Honeybees contribute about $15 billion to the U.S. economy. Though they are not native—European colonists brought honeybees over in the early 1600s as an easy source of sugar. But wild bees are important for our economic and environmental health too. Of the roughly 4,000 native bee species in the U.S., 20% to 45% are pollen specialists, meaning they rely on one type of plant for food. If the bees aren’t present, the plant won’t reproduce, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

But these vital insects are in trouble. Beginning in 2006, scientists began noticing alarming declines in honeybee colonies; the phenomenon was soon dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder. In 2022, beekeepers reported an estimated 39% of colony loss in an annual survey conducted by the Bee Informed Partnership, in line with previous years. While numbers are harder to come by for native bees, experts estimate that globally, 40% of all native bees are vulnerable to extinction.

Pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, which poison the entire plant, including the pollen and nectar that bees feed on, have been partially blamed for the disquieting declines. Since then, the European Union, Canada and the U.S. (through 2019’s Saving America’s Pollinators Act), have banned neonicotinoids for most uses. Climate change and widespread monoculture are also believed to be factors, according to scientists.

While the threat to the world’s food supply is top of mind for everyone when it comes to plummeting bee populations, it is becoming increasingly clear that bees also contribute, in much less obvious, but equally essential ways, to the health of all farms—vineyards included.

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