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Applewood — pristine and pest free

Inside the stately black iron gates that border Applewood Estate, the former home of Charles Stewart and Ruth Mott, a wonderland appears in the middle of urban Flint.

Turn back the clock and view an apple orchard the way it looked almost a hundred years ago — large towering trees with golden and rosy fruits. Or visit one of the many gardens where a larger-than-life frog sculpture, a Flint icon from years past, brings back memories for parents and keeps youngsters occupied climbing its back and peering into its protruding eyes.

Keeping the 34-acre estate authentic and environmentally friendly requires technology that the Motts would not have dreamed of.

A weather station near the apple orchard records hourly wind, humidity, temperature and other data, then downloads the information to a computer where professionals determine if conditions are ripe for apple scab or fire blight. Monitoring the environment keeps spraying the trees to a minimum and reports let caretakers know how much water is necessary for trees to produce their luscious apples.

Or view the benign-looking bee hives buzzing with activity. Who would guess a commercial mite zapper is attached to the hives that kills pesky mites that invade.

Leading the fight against the microscopic predators that seek to damage and destroy this paradise is Mike Belco, horticulturist and head of the integrated pest management system at Applewood. Belco, a former veterinarian, changed careers in midstream. A Michigan State University graduate, Belco has a degree in plant biology and has been at his post for the last 10 years.

"The 71 trees in the apple orchard keep me very busy," Belco explained. "Insects pests and fungal diseases are what we are looking for. There are 29 heritage varieties here that include the 20-ounce Pippin and the Red Gravenstein. They need regular pruning which is a great way to control pests."

The trees are pruned with gaps between branches that allow air to flow between them.

"The air movement prevents disease," Belco said.

Cardboard insect traps that look like birdhouses are hanging on the trees, Belco explained. Apple maggot flies are one of the pests the traps attract.

"We use a drip irrigation system here, "Belco continued. "That way water gets to the roots. Based on the information from the weather station we know the evapotranspiration — how much water the plants have lost on windy, dry or sunny days. Then we know just the right amount of water to provide. We never over-water."

The pollinator habitat is a garden filled with local wild flower varieties that attract diverse insects like lacewings and ladybugs that eat mites and aphids.

"We have 30 different Michigan native plants here that attract pollinators, including wild onions, asters, wild strawberries and goldenrod," Belco explained.

He pointed out a plant where hundreds of bees were hovering — collecting pollen and nectar to feed their babies.

The bee hives are set away from the orchard and Belco monitors them regularly.

"We had one hive that ran into trouble earlier in the summer. The queen had died," Belco explained. "That left lots of male drones. They don't do any work. All the work is done by the females." Belco said.

To remedy the problem Belco had to find another queen. He found one on the internet. The new queen came from Georgia, was installed in the hive and the colony was saved.

Belco wears an astronaut-style bee suit complete with gloves, hat and veil when working in the hives.

"I use a smoker — a small wooden device that pumps smoke into the hives," Belco said.

According to Belco, bees have a keen scent detection system and when they smell the smoke it disrupts their communication system. They become calmer, allowing Belco to do his hive inspections.

The honeybees at Applewood survive the Michigan winters by relentlessly moving their wings keeping the queen warm and by eating honey.

"We collect about 30 pounds of honey a year," Belco said. "Instead of sugar, we use it to make the Applewood cake for our fall festival."

"Bees are hard working critters," Belco continued. "The colony has no concept of an individual. They are totally selfless creatures working for the good of the group. They have a definite social cast — first the queen, then the workers and then the drones. At the end of fall the male drones are kicked out of the hives and the workers stay to keep the queen warm and comfortable. In the spring, the cycle begins again.

The Applewood Fall Harvest Festival is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 24.

 

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