The farm in late August/September is not only a riot of zukes and cukes from the garden, it is also a riot of color. Mid-afternoon, I find myself lingering in the zinnias and wanting to just lay down under the silphium and sunflowers in the orchard, soak in the warmth, the colors, and just listen to summer. It is revved up by cicadas, orchestrated by crickets, tuned by tree frogs and abuzz with bees. The bees right now are drunk on nectar, and loaded down with pollen. I am amazed that they can fly, so laden with cargo!
Where would be be without the birds and the bees? The world would be a lonely, unfertile place. Seventy percent of the flowering plants would not exist. Agriculture and our resulting diets would be devoid of over 50 fruit, vegetable, and nut varieties, and the landscape aesthetic subdued. Pollinators need our help. They face many constraints – lack of forage, nest site availability, and overwintering sites, pesticide use, and disease/mite pressure to name a few. Part of my work as a farmer is to steward habitat for pollinators.
Last year, Rob and I added livestock to the mix of our diversified fruit and vegetable farm. Normally, farm decisions are made with the intention of small steps toward big impact. So when we decided to add over 60,000 honeybees we strayed from the norm. Seriously, when it comes to keeping bees, one healthy hive can support thousands of bees.
Honeybees are all sweetness and light –producers of honey and beeswax. They have been prized creatures since ancient times. So when I don my beesuit, I imagine I am being summoned to the royal court of Cleopatra, Eleanor of Acquitine, or Elizabeth the I. The smoker spewing 'incense and myrrh' an offering as we approach the hive body in reverence and anticipation. I love to work the hive. It's a highlight of the week and I think adds to the romance of my marriage. Both Rob and I are in total Zen mode. We pause, slow down, careful not to disturb the 'girls' with sudden movements, observe, and are often transfixed when we pull out a frame in a rainbow pattern of honey, pollen, brood and bees, thousands of them! And boy are they active! After a few hiccups in July that resulted in a successful re-queening effort, we're confident that our colony is strong. Our goal is to get the bees through a Wisconsin winter, and we were mindful not to take too much honey from the hive (bees need ~60 – 70 lbs of honey capped and stored for the winter months).
August is the time when we harvest honey and start to hone in on winter support. Like a bear gorging on berries, putting on fat for the winter hibernation, bees too, need to beef up for the winter months. This means a strong population in September as that will be the population that carries the queen and the hive through the winter. Unlike bears, bees don't hibernate. They take turns rotating in the hive body, keeping the queen and each other at a steady 96 degrees. That's no simple feat when the mercury dips below zero! There's one more good 'honeyflow' on the horizon with the abundance of goldenrod and asters, after which the nectar really slows down. Here is where we really night to size up and hone in during the hive inspections. Do the bees have plenty of honey and pollen stored? Do they have enough space? Do we need to supplement and feed pollen? So much about keeping bees (and farming in general), is about paying attention to Mother Nature's signs and knowing when to artfully intervene.
I'm also discovering ancillary benefits of keeping bees. Most notably, I am much more attune to the insect world (having fruit trees is also a good catalyst for learning entomology). Weeding now takes on another form. It's o.k. To let the thistle flowerheads bloom, (so long as I pull before they set seed). I linger when harvesting cilantro, noting bumblebees dusted in pollen, syrphid flies, mason bees, sweat bees, and swallowtails, all hovering and gorging on the flowers. I pay attention to bloom time succession when planning new planting space – making sure there is a diversity of flowering plants from spring through fall. Having a 2 ½ acre field border around the orchard and a 25 acre prairie gives us a diversity of native flowers and herbs. Combine this with our flowers, herbs and vegetables in and around the CSA gardens, flowering fruit trees in the orchard, willows, basswood, locust, honeysuckle, and native tree fruit in our woodlands, we think our bees enjoy a bountiful foraging buffet.
In truth, compared to native pollinators such as bumblebees, honeybees are pretty lazy. The former are the true pollination workhorses – from dawn to dusk, they don't stop. The latter well, who can resist honey? Honeybees, I've observed, really prefer tree fruit, though whether we can attribute the increased fruiting success in our orchard to honeybees or to providing habitat for native pollinators is pause for reflection. In the end it's a both and argument, not an either or.
We all need to do our part for pollinators and you don't need a 59 acre farm to do so and you don't need to be a commercial beekeeper. The Xerces Society, in their book, Attracting Native Pollinators, the best bee habitat contains a diversity of native plants.They recommend that to build a continuous food supply for pollinators, choose at least nine blooming plants (at least three for each season). Anatomy plays a role. For example planting asters (late summer/fall bloomers) have a simple flower structure and have easily accessible nectar that supports many different species of bees. Bumblebees have the advantage of a long tongues and bigger body mass to push petals aside; they sometimes prefer complex flowers such as lupines, salvias, and penstemmons. Syrphid flies have short mouthparts best suited to open or small flowers such as yarrow, fennel, alyssum, or cilantro. Butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds can probe tubular flowers from liatrus and zinnias to honeysuckle, and milkweed. Beetles often feed at the surface of blooms, such as goldenrods, where nectar and pollen are abundant and easily accessible and there is plenty of perching space. And don't forget the grasses. While wind pollinated, grasses and sedges can provide host plants for some butterflies and habitat/potential nesting sites for colonies of bumble bees.
In all cases, go native where possible! Especially at the garden hedges and edges. Native plants offer a number of additional advantages over ornamentals. In general they do not require fertilizers or pesticides, need less water, provide permanent shelter and food for other wildlife, are less likely to become invasive, and promote local native biological diversity. If your space is compromised, in transition, and/or you grow vegetables/do a lot of annual cultivation, a low cost temporary bee pasture can be established. Cosmos, borage, buckwheat, phacelia or sweet clover are good choices.
I am convinced that whatever God or Spirit you might honor exists so long as the world remains inhabited by social insects, like Apis mellifera. They are fascinating and provide us a great gift, “...one that feeds our brains and our bellies. Inside each teeming beehive is an exemplar of a community whose members succeed in working together to achieve a shared goal.” (Seely, Honeybee Democracy). I can't help but think what a 'waggle dance' or two could do to help keep the peace when it comes to making decisions. We need to work with the honeybees and our pollinator friends to learn from their behavior and decision making processes, and to continue the ancient tradition of celebrating the birds and the bees—enjoying the sweet rewards from the 'nectar of the Gods'.
Next time when you are enjoying a drizzle of 'bee pooh' (aka honey) with your breakfast toast, consider the words of George Bernard Shaw, in his 1903 Man and Superman works, “Go to the bee, thou poet: consider her ways, and be wise.”
by Erin Schneider