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The Bee, an Unsung Vineyard Hero, Steps Into the Spotlight

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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

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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.”

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