The buzz over a new Saskatchewan fruit crop

By Costa Maragos Posted: July 21, 2015 6:00 a.m.

Not all bees are equal when it comes to pollination. Some do a better a job than others depending on the flower
Not all bees are equal when it comes to pollination. Some do a better a job than others depending on the flower (Photo courtesy of Danae Frier).

Even so-called ‘super-foods’ need a boost. That’s what a U of R Biology Major, Danae Frier, is trying to do to a little known fruit called Haskap.

The berry is grown in select areas of Saskatchewan and is highly regarded in Japan where Haskap has been described as ‘the fruit of life.’

“Haskap is a fruiting shrub, like a blueberry. As for its taste, it’s tart and sweet,” says Frier. “The fruit is very high in anti-oxidants and anthocyanins, which may have health benefits.”

Frier has been on a research mission to help boost Haskap yields for Saskatchewan growers. In this case it’s about the bees. Haskap needs help from pollinating bees to produce fruit. The greater the pollination, the greater the yield.

Haskap is grown in a handful of orchards in Saskatchewan but there’s potential for market growth.   

The growers want to know which bees should be used to maximize fruit production.  Right now most growers depend on honey bees to supplement pollination.  Other growers are exploring the potential for using blue orchard bees, as they are used in other orchard fruits.

Frier has compared the honey bee and blue orchard bee with the performance of wild bumble bees.

“We thought bumblebees might be important for Haskap because they are active very early in the year and are very cold tolerant. That’s an important point because Haskap flowers in early spring when it’s still pretty cool in Saskatchewan,” says Frier.

Danae Frier
Danae Frier – Biology Major
(Photo - U of R Photography).

Blue orchard bees, which are also native to Canada, are similarly tolerant to cold temperatures. Honey bees, which have been introduced from Europe, will only pollinate during good weather.

Frier has numerous scenarios to consider and those include -

  • How much pollen does each bee group deposit per visit?
  • How do they behave once they visit the flowers?
  • How many flowers can each bee visit over a certain period of time?
  • How does their activity change depending on the weather?
  • Will the bees visit Haskap when there are other flowers available?

Who knew bees were so fussy?

“Not all bees are equal when it comes to pollination. Some do a better a job than others depending on the flower,” says Frier.

Frier’s fieldwork was done at an orchard in Birch Hills, near Prince Albert. Her research was done under the supervision of Dr. Chris Somers from the department of Biology and Dr. Cory Sheffield, adjunct professor at the U of R and Curator of invertebrate Biology at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina.

Here’s what Frier has come up with so far.

“Individually, bumble bees came out on top in every category and are the best pollinators of Haskap. Blue orchard bees did okay in most categories, but they rarely choose to visit Haskap when other flowers are available, such as willow.  Honey bees performed poorly individually, but because there can be thousands of bees in a hive, together they may contribute the most to the pollination of Haskap, but only in good weather,” says Frier.

“Bumble bees exist in much lower densities, but because they are tolerant to cold weather they are really important to ensuring a high fruit yield during cold springs which happens often in Saskatchewan.”

Frier says all this points to the importance of providing wild bee habitat around Haskap orchards. That means planting wild flowers and crops that flower thoughout the summer, which would provide a continuous food source for the bees, and leaving undisturbed areas for bees to nest.

Frier has completed her research, and is now writing her thesis.  

Her research has been funded by the Government of Saskatchewan’s Agriculture Development Fund and a grant from the Canadian Agriculture Adaptation Program, a federally funded agency.