The importance of bee-ing

June 3 Orchard Observations Mraz beehivesBy Megan Humphrey, Shelburne Orchards

According to the Vermont Beekeepers Association, European honeybees were brought to America in the 1600s to provide honey and pollinate clover, the newly introduced animal forage. Since then, the honeybee has become vital to our food production as it pollinates more than 80 commercial crops. Domestic honeybees pollinate approximately $10 billion worth of crops in the United States every year.

Bee cross-pollination is essential to the reproduction and production of many plants including the apple crop at Shelburne Orchards. Owner Nick Cowles explained that “there are other bees in our area, but bringing in Champlain Valley Apiaries hives insures that the apple crop will be pollinated.” He continued, “The bees need the sun to navigate and the temperatures warm enough so we leave the hives at the orchard for a few days.” Champlain Valley Apiaries, started by the Mraz family in 1931, is one of the oldest commercial beekeeping operations in Vermont and has provided beehives for the orchard’s apple tree pollination for many years.  Other Vermont crops that benefit from bees include asparagus, blueberries, cucumbers, pumpkins, raspberries, soybeans, squash, and strawberries.

An 1868 U.S. agriculture survey showed Vermont as the leading honey producing state in New England, and that is still true today. With 12,000 to 15,000 hives producing from 400,000 to 1,000,000 pounds of honey annually, Vermont honey is typically mild flavored and light colored.

Unfortunately, native pollinators as well as domesticated bee populations are declining. “They are threatened by habitat loss, disease, and the excessive and inappropriate use of pesticides,” explained Laurie Davies Adams, Executive Director at Pollinator Partnership. A reduction in acreage for bees to forage, the alarming use of pesticides, and the problem of mites and disease have all contributed to the decline.

In Vermont, the loss of more than 100,000 acres of hay fields since the 1980s has reduced the amount of blooming alfalfa and clover. Cutting hay fields for cattle doesn’t bode so well for bees. “Everything with bees is a negative. They don’t have anything going for them right now,” explained Chaz Mraz of Champlain Valley Apiaries.

Although the decline in the bee population seems incredibly discouraging, there are some things that each of us can do as farmers and gardeners to encourage bees:

Choose plants that will provide nectar and pollen throughout the entire growing season. Dandelions are typically the first flower of the season to which bees are attracted. Apple blossoms, willows, and other flowering trees provide pollen and nectar early in the season as well. Later on, asters, clover, goldenrod, herbs and mints (including monarda which is in the mint family), salvias, and squash blossoms are preferable. Biologist Anna Beauchemin suggests reading the “Invertebrate Conservation Fact Sheet” from the Xerces Society by Eric Mader and Matthew Shepard and online materials from the UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab for plant lists that are beneficial to bees.

Eliminate the use of pesticides. There are many natural options for pest control. For more information, read “Natural Garden Pest Control” on EarthEasy.com.

Plant native wildflowers in larger clumps of the same flower. Annuals that have been highly bred are deceptive to bees. Even though they may have attractive colors, they lack pollen and nectar.

Biologist Beauchemin explained that “one of the best things you can do to promote bees is to manage your gardens, homes, and public green spaces in a way that attracts pollinators.” She continued, “Providing food (flowers), habitat (bare dirt, stems, and dead wood), and water (pond, birdbath, or dripping faucet) are three essential steps.”

If you want to learn more about bees, the following workshop might be of interest:

Saturday, Oct. 4, 10am-2pm: “Bee Here Now” will be hosted by Shelburne Orchards.  Mraz of Champlain Valley Apiaries, biologist Beauchemin, who works with native pollinators, and Hope Johnson of Vermont Quilt Bee will present workshops and activities regarding the importance of bees and how to preserve a species that is so uniquely integral to the agricultural environment.

Bees often show up in our language. Phrases such as “busy as a bee,” “float like a butterfly, but sting like a bee,” the “bee’s knees,” “a bee in your bonnet,” and “the birds and the bees,” remind us of the importance of bees in our culture. We’ll all need to pitch in to save bees, and in doing so, save our food.