HOOD RIVER, Oregon — Grower Brad Fowler walked into the cherry orchard on yet another May day when the temperatures struggled to climb above 50 degrees and a chill wind swept through the long rows of trees at the tail end of their annual bloom.
Fowler searched for signs of honeybees doing the vital work of pollination that sets fruit as they move from blossom to blossom. On a warm day, he might find 20 bees in each tree, their flights creating a steady hum. On this morning, there was an unsettling quietness. He could only find a few bees spread about the trees he examined.
“I am surprised they are out at all, as cold as it is,” Fowler said.
Here in the Hood River valley in northern Oregon, and all throughout the prime Pacific Northwest cherry-growing regions, the cool spring weather has often kept the bees — billions of which are brought into the region’s fruit orchards each year — inside, or close by, the hives of their wooden box colonies.
The low temperatures have resulted in slower and later flowering of the cherry trees. In some orchards, when temperatures prime for bee flight finally arrived, the window for blossom pollination had already closed.
B. J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers, says the challenges in pollinating this crop, along with damage from the cold, are expected to reduce this year’s cherry crop by 35% compared with the average volume of the past five years.
“There’s bud kill from the cold, and then there’s lack of pollination, and I’d say that’s probably split 50-50,” said Thurlby, who forecasts a late start to the harvest season, probably June 5 or 6.
Most of the Northwest’s cherries are grown in Washington, where in 2021 they ranked as the fifth most valuable crop. In Yakima, hub of one of the state’s cherry-growing areas, the average high for April was 11 degrees below the mean, according to the National Weather Service.
This also has been a wet spring, with snowpacks in many areas of the Cascades at least 130% of average, and in the Oregon basin above the Hood River Valley, more than double the average as of May 12, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. This is in stark contrast to some other areas of the West, including California, which is in the grip of extreme drought. Water restrictions are in place in the Los Angeles area and farmers can’t use as much water for irrigation, forcing some to let land go unused.
Fowler, president of Hood River Cherry Company, grows some of the Pacific Northwest’s highest-elevation cherries, which means some trees are still in bloom and he remains hopeful for a strong crop.
“It’s just up to the bees, and if they can get the job done,” Fowler said.
Hood River Cherry’s more than 300 acres of trees grow in three orchards ranging from 1,850 feet elevation to a tract — with a spectacular backdrop of Mount Hood — that is 2,450 feet above sea level and represents the upper limits of where cherries in this valley can make a viable crop.
Fowler is a former logger who found these tracts, which previously were covered with timber, to be the most affordable options as he and his wife, Kathryn Klein, started growing cherries in the 1990s. They are convinced that higher-elevation orchards produce some of sweetest, most crisp cherries in the Northwest. Their late-season ripening means they begin picking when other orchards have finished their harvests and markets are not so glutted.
Through the years, Fowler and Klein learned a lot about how to grow cherries under some extreme conditions and have developed a loyal customer base. But there are plenty of challenges, especially this spring.
A black bear, for example, has repeatedly wandered into one of orchards, destroying some 13 boxed hives in pursuit of honey.
On many nights, Fowler has had to burn expensive propane to power the fans that warm the orchard by 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit and fend off crop damage from freezing temperatures.
Then, there are the honeybees, which arrived at Hood River Cherry orchards after a stint in California fertilizing the almond orchards. Early in April, nearly 600 colonies were placed at strategic locations around the orchards by beekeeper David Wendell just as the cherry trees appeared poised to bloom.
In a typical spring, most of flowers would come out in about a week’s time. But this bloom has happened in fits and starts over the past month.
The many days of low temperatures prompted more of the female worker bees, which when foraging for nectar and pollen have a life span of about six weeks, to stay inside the bee boxes to preserve heat, according to Wendell. The bee colonies need food to survive so Wendell travels around to more than a dozen orchards, distributing a sucrose-based syrup, which takes a lot of time and racks up thousands of dollars in added costs.
Despite the feeding, some bees have died, although Wendell estimates the mortality in Hood River Cherry orchards at 2% or less. A bigger percentage of bees has struggled and not been at full strength.
“They’re stressed. It’s cold and crappy and it’s been that way for a week or so, and they might be a little bit more aggressive,” said Wendell, as he carefully removed a box to check on one of the hives in the lowest elevation of Hood River Cherry’s three orchards.
But he found these bees to be in a relatively benign mood, tolerating his intrusion without stinging him.
As the morning temperatures climbed ever so slightly, Fowler strolled again through his orchard to check on bee activity. He spotted some bees between the rows nestled in dandelion flowers, which provide a nectar that can contribute to the health of the bee colony.
He hoped that, over time, more bees would find their way into the nearby rows filled with one of the orchard’s most popular cherry varieties, called Reginas, which were introduced from Germany and are a deep purple when ripe.
The Reginas do not self-pollinate, which is why Fowler needs bees to pick up pollen from other varieties interspersed in the rows — and drop it in the Regina blossoms.
“We’re crossing our fingers,” Fowler said.