Migrant Beekeepers Ensure Fruitful Blueberry Crop Down East With AM-Beekeeping Business-Problems

STOCKTON SPRINGS, Maine (AP) _ Henri and Suzanne Groesenek are worried. As the sun blazes and the temperature pushes 90, the 3 million migrant workers riding on the bed of their truck are growing angry.

The Groeseneks' concern is justified: If it gets too hot, their migrants could perish within minutes. They will have to unload the truck quickly to avert disaster.

So it goes in the high-risk business of beekeeping, where occasional bear forays and incessant bee stings pale beside the dangers of losing scores of valuable hives to heat-induced suffocation.

And if the bees disappear, eastern Maine's lucrative wild blueberry crop also stands to suffer. To assure a bountiful harvest, growers depend on the 1 billion honeybees that are trucked into the state each spring.

Since 1980, when the industry stepped up its importation of hives to cross- pollinate blueberry fields, the average annual crop has soared from 19.2 million pounds to 46.1 million pounds, says Edward McLaughlin, executive director of the Maine Blueberry Commission.

Wild blueberries, used primarily as an ingredient in pancakes, muffins and other packaged baked goods, represent a $60 million industry in a region heavily dependent on seasonal income from fishing, farming and logging.

Increased use of bees has made Maine a key stop on the annual migration route of East Coast beekeepers, who truck their colonies to Florida just before winter and return north in the spring.

Eighteen-wheelers, covered with nylon netting to keep the bees from flying off, are commonly seen on Maine roads this time of year, traveling to blueberry barrens where the hives are set for three to four weeks.

The Groeseneks use a smaller truck to haul the day's load of 112 hives and tow a forklift. As the truck pulls off the road and onto the edge of a 40-acre field, Henri and Suzanne don protective veils and plastic pith helmets.

Henri starts the forklift and his wife unties the ropes that hold down the orange netting.

''They're going to be a little ugly when I pull the net off,'' Suzanne says.

With the net removed, the bees' buzzing grows loud in the still air. Staccato bursts punctuate the steady hum as bees knock against helmets and veils.

Suddenly: ''Ouch 3/8''

Suzanne is the first to get stung as a bee slips under her veil and nails her near the eye. Henri takes a sting moments later after he stuffs pine needles into a smoker and prepares to blow smoke onto the hives to calm the bees.

Stings come with the territory for veteran beekeepers like the Groeseneks, who over the years have accumulated thousands.

''Probably every time we go out to work, we'll count on getting stung at least four or five times, sometimes many, many more,'' Suzanne said.

The Groeseneks pay no attention to their injuries as they race to keep the bees - which account for more than one-fifth of their 500 hives - from suffocating in the heat. They carry no insurance against such a loss because it would be prohibitively expensive.

''If the temperature inside the hive gets too hot, the bees will start dying and dropping to the floorboard. And when they do that, they'll block the entrance to the colony. That will cause even less ventilation and more heat, and within a few minutes - four or five minutes - the whole hive will perish,'' Suzanne explained.

Henri fans smoke onto the hives and the bees engorge themselves with honey, becoming less aggressive. He then clambers aboard the forklift and unloads 44 hives, enough to provide just over one hive per acre.

With the hives distributed on the ground, the bees begin flying to the blueberry blossoms opening across the field.

''I'd say within 20 minutes, at the most, they'll be making blueberry honey,'' Suzanne said.

The Groeseneks' teamwork reflects the nearly 20 years they've been together since meeting while working for a beekeeper who shuttled his hives between Texas and Nebraska.

Honey production provides some income for the Groeseneks and other beekeepers who truck their colonies to the blueberry fields. But quantities of blueberry honey are relatively sparse, forcing apiarists to earn most of their income by charging growers rental fees of about $30 to $35 per hive.

Other crops like clover, oranges and wild raspberries provide no rental income. But the amount of honey the bees produce makes the venture worthwhile.

Maine growers say the bees are worth the extra expense.

After showing the Groeseneks where to set their hives, Ken Lyford, local field boss for Allen's Blueberry Freezer, said the field's output had more than doubled with the imported bees. It has grown from 18 tons of berries in the late 1970s, when growers relied exclusively on wild bees for pollination, to 37 1/2 tons last year.

''You don't have bees, you don't get much,'' Lyford said. ''I can show you the places where the bees don't get at, and they don't get much.''

The Groeseneks ring an electrified fence - a six-volt battery hooked up to chicken wire - around their hives to guard against honey-hungry bears.

Just that morning, Henri found a bear had raided several of their hives at their home in Bradley. He notified the local game warden, who promised to set a trap for the pesky bruin and remove it from the area.

By mid-June, as blueberry growers prepare to spray their crop with pesticides, the beekeepers gather their hives and move their migrant workers again.

Some head south to the cranberry bogs of Massachusetts; others, like the Groeseneks, turn north, to make raspberry, clover and goldenrod honey in northern Maine's Aroostook County.

The Groeseneks move their bees seven times each year. Each move is an exhausting exercise characterized by 18-hour workdays and little sleep.

The blueberry fields then await the second wave of migrants: the midsummer influx of pickers - many from eastern Canada - who rake the berries during the feverish four- to six-week harvest that usually ends in mid-September.