What can I say except that bees are truly fascinating and as I learned more about gardening, I became increasingly aware of just how connected bees are to our everyday lives. From my morning coffee to my favorite fruits and vegetables, bees ultimately played a big part in having things I quite enjoy. Honey at the same time was of interest to me as I was having some allergy troubles, and it was suggested to me I start taking locally produced honey, daily. Honey is one of the most delicious foods on earth, and it is the only food produced by insects that humans consume. There are thousands of types of honey, and beekeepers can even specialize their honey by crop. Orange blossom honey, buckwheat honey, dandelion or blueberry honey are just some examples of flavors you can find. I love to do honey tastings for groups or as part of classes I teach. It is a wonderful way to get people’s attention for the better of the bees. Honey’s flavor comes from the nectar from specific plants that the bees are foraging on. The bees also collect pollen from plants, and like flavors of honey, there are thousands of colors and shapes of pollen. Notice the back legs of the bee on my suit in the photo above. This is pollen mixed with a small amount of nectar to stick as much pollen as possible in basket type pockets on their hind legs.
As I spent more time in the garden, I started to notice bees were not around in the numbers I remembered as a child. I was concerned. Learning more about the pollination connection with gardening, I decided I would look into honey beekeeping. I began my beekeeping journey by taking a Community Education class similar to the ones I offer in the fall of each year with our local school district. At the class I had taken, the lovely gal teaching suggested that we all find a mentor beekeeper to work with if we were serious about doing it. I was hooked and sought out another local beekeeper who I am grateful to have on speed dial when new situations arise. There is a significant learning curve to honey beekeeping. It is not the right hobby for everyone, but anyone can do it if they really want to learn. If you are interested in learning more about beekeeping, there are lots of great opportunities throughout our region to start to get involved. There are two regional honey beekeeping associations that hold monthly meetings, many with educational or informational sessions on beekeeping. The Head of the Lakes Beekeeping Association offers free educational sessions after each of their monthly meetings, and the UW-Superior’s Urban Honeybee Project holds free basic beekeeping workshops each spring. There is also an annual Beekeeping and More Symposium put on by NEMNBA (Northeastern Minnesota Beekeepers Association) each February at the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College. Connecting with other beekeepers in your area is very valuable when it comes to learning the ropes. If you are interested in a mentor-ship with me, please feel free to contact me via the tab above, or on Facebook. To connect with one of the great regional beekeeping groups check out the links below along with other resourceful links.
Though honeybees have been in the US since ~1600’s, they are not a native species. They were brought here by early European settlers, and though they can make up for their lack of efficiency in pollinating some plants by sheer numbers, it is our native bee species that are best at pollinating many of our native flowering trees, shrubs, and plants. Some native bees like our Minnesota bumble bee species are actually best at pollinating our blueberry plants, and even tomatoes. Bumble bees are big and strong, and when certain plants like blueberries and tomatoes have extra sticky pollen, it is the bumble bees that can shake that pollen loose. Bumble bees are able to detach their flight muscles from their wings in a way that allows them to vibrate at a rate equal to the frequency of the musical note “C”, and this causes the extra sticky pollen to fall from its perch. This is called sonication.
As I learn more about these buzzy little bugs, I hope to help others understand their importance in our ecosystems. Bees are in serious trouble, and awareness is only the beginning of the solution. There are some key things to understand, and we all can make a difference. The most effective thing we all can do is plant bee friendly plants, which are those that provide nectar and pollen. This is especially true if you are going to be bringing honeybees to a new place. By adding honeybee hives to your property, please understand you are adding significant competition to those native bees that currently live in that habitat. Flowering trees and shrubs will make the biggest and longest lasting impact for bee forage, but all bee friendly flowers help. The next best thing is to reduce your use of herbicides and pesticides. Bee* sure the plants and seeds you purchase have not been treated with chemicals. Many big box type stores treat their plants with neonicontinoid pesticides. Make chemicals your last resort around your homes. Adding bat houses, leaving wasp and hornets nests to thrive when space is adequate, avoiding stepping on spiders and preventing unnecessary standing water on your property are great ways to reduce pests naturally. There are a variety of herbal plants that are thought to help deter pesky insects as well. Plants like those in the mint family, or that are citrus smelling are often unfavorable to not only insects, but rodents and even deer. Even better many of the smelly herbs are wonderful bee forage if left to flower.
Bee friendly forage is high priority on the farm, and each season I look to add more native flowering trees and shrubs. This not only helps to ensure our honeybees are healthier, but the native populations will also have more foraging options. Each year I look for bulk purchasing options of pollinator friendly trees and shrubs. Your regional Soil and Water Conservation District office is usually a great place to start. The last few years we have added not only native white pine and white cedar as part of the North Shore Forest Collaborative’s partnership with the Weekes Family Foundation, but we were able to add deciduous flowering native forage within these fenced plots. Tress and shrubs like Aronia berry, Peach leaf Willow, Flowering Crabapple, Elderberry, Highbush Cranberry, and Wild Plum benefit several types of pollinators, as well as the local wildlife. This year once again we have increased forage area for pollinators, as we have started a new vegetable/pollinator plot. This ~70ft x 5ft plot will combine both vegetable plots and pollinator friendly native perennial plants. Blocks of Milkweed, Culver’s Root, Joe-Pie-Weed, Jacob’s Ladder, Monarda, and the dual purpose Sun Chokes will act as blocks of pollinator habitat among our vegetables, many of which also benefit pollinators.
Other Beekeeping Options:
Many native bees can be observed on a smaller scale compared to honey beekeeping. There are now commercially available Pollinator Hotels and Mason Bee Nests. You can also make your own with a little research and careful selection of materials. If you have a diverse flower garden or even a bit of variety among flowering trees and shrubs on your property, you probably have several kinds of bees living around you already. Installing such a nest or hotel will help you to observe many types of bees. Over the last decade or so, lots of research has revealed more about the 400+ species of bees we have living here in Minnesota. Many are stingless or too small to be a bother to you or anyone having fear or allergic reactions. There are some great books out there that will help you decide on what forage you should plant if you are designing new gardens, and of course providing shelter and a water source will increase the variety and number of bees and other pollinators you can attract. I love to use the nest or hotel making activity especially for kids when I am working with them. It’s incredibly rewarding to see a child’s eyes light up when they see a little bee peak its head out the nest they made. There are some good websites to take a look at if you are interested in building your own pollinator hotel. A word of advice if you purchase a commercially manufactured type: Many of those produced are now being found to not be quite deep enough for the tubes that are used for nesting chambers by the bees. Tubes should be at least 4-6″ deep, and there should be one end of the tube that is sealed or has a back. Also be aware that you should be bringing the hotels or nests into an unheated but protected location so that you prevent destruction of the nests by woodpeckers during the winter.
Regional Honey Beekeeping Groups:
Head of the Lakes Beekeeping Association; http://www.hotlbees.org
NE Minnesota Beekeepers Association; http://www.nemnba.org
Minnesota Honey Producers; http://www.minnesotahoneyproduers.org
Learn about native plants, their pollinators, and other interesting bugs at www.restoringthelandscape.com