Beekeeping cowboy brings pollinators to Sippican

By Georgia Sparling | Jun 20, 2012
Photo by: Georgia Sparling Beekeeper Dave Mendes has built a business around pollinating crops from California to Massachusetts, including hundreds of cranberry fields.

The term “commercial pollinators” may conjure the image of bees in tiny business suits, but it’s actually a business that’s as important to local cranberry crops as water.

Dave Mendes and his winged livestock travel thousands of miles each year to pollinate crops on the East and West coasts, and recently landed in the Sippican area.

“It’s ABC,” said Mendes. “Almonds in California, blueberries in Maine and cranberries in Massachusetts.”

Mendes, originally from Dartmouth, began keeping bees in the 1970s and turned his hobby into a business in 1977 when he moved to Florida.

“The season starts earlier there, and plants blooming early gets the bees built up,” he said. “I don’t go there because I love Florida; I go there because I grow bugs.”

Growing bugs is not all there is to it. Cultivating bees, shepherding and migrating them across the country as well as getting stung countless times takes a certain kind of person.

“Beekeepers are the last cowboys,” said Caroline Gilmore, whose husband, Kirby, employs Mendes’ for his bogs.

Kirby Gilmore, a cranberry farmer who lives in Rochester, said, “I have a long relationship with Dave, and I think he’s about the best guy around.”

“David comes around to visit the hives, and he really pays attention.”

Mendes spends about five months a year hauling his hives around the country on flatbed trailers, and has built one of the nation’s biggest pollinating companies, Headwaters Farm.

But why use commercial bees? Mendes said bringing in pollinators is an old business and necessary for America’s food production.

“The way we grow food in this country is based on growing a large amount of food in a small area. It’s not natural,” he said. “In nature you wouldn’t have five to ten thousand acres of cranberries in Massachusetts.”

And local pollinators can’t keep up with the millions of cranberry flowers.

“Without the honeybees, it’s doubtful we would have too much of a cranberry crop,” said Kirby Gilmore.

Around mid-June each year, Mendes arrives in cranberry country and begins the time-consuming process of placing hives in hundreds of fields, most in Plymouth and Bristol counties.

Cranberries don’t produce a surplus of food for the bees, said Mendes, standing in a small bog in Marion. “The reason we’re here is to make cranberries, not to make honey.”

And while moving bees around the country is no easy job, Mendes said it’s become even harder in recent years. Bee colonies mysteriously collapsing has become such a serious issue that the EPA, Army, USDA and university researchers have been wracking their brains to figure out what’s wrong.

Mendes said pesticides, pathogens and poor nutrition have all been blamed. “Many beekeepers, including me, think that pesticides are a large part of our problem,” he said. “Bees are an indicator species. When the bees are dying, there is something else wrong.”

For Mendes, helping the bees is personal.

After 30 years of experience, “You develop a connection with the bees. In order to be successful, you have to have a reverence for that life you’re working with.”

That’s why you have to pay attention to them and listen, he said.

“They teach you. That little stinger on the back is an educational tool.”

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