“Do you guys keep bees?” is a fairly common question at Farmstead Creamery. And not a surprising one, given the dire state of honeybees nationwide. Pollinating insects — which include all kinds of bees and butterflies — are an essential part of our ecosystem. As they buzz or flit from flower to flower, gathering nectar and pollen for their young, their fuzzy bodies drag pollen with them, which rubs off on the blooms they visit.
This pollination process allows the blossoms to become fruit — apples, berries, squashes, beans, cucumbers, cherries, nuts and more rely on insects to bear fruit. Even the tongues of hummingbirds have been shown to carry pollen in a beneficial way. Without the hard work of all these tiny helpers, at least one-third of all the foods we eat would cease to exist.
We did keep honeybees on the farm for 13 years (starting in 2003), under the guidance of Keith Rowe from Lake Namakagon. He knew the old-school way of keeping bees, starting from his own experience before World War II. I even served as the 2006 Wisconsin Honey Queen, touring the state and teaching students of all ages about the lifecycle of honeybees and their importance as pollinators.
Having just a few hives on our farm increased garden productivity of fruiting crops by more than double. But three consecutive years of devastation by Colony Collapse Disorder (in which exposure to toxic neonicotinoid insecticides cause the bees to become disoriented, abandoning their young and leaving the hive to die), I let the honeybee project go. We have never used these chemicals on our farm, but honeybees will fly up to five miles to gather food. At first, I was concerned that the garden would suffer and return to pre-honeybee productivity. But to our delight, pollination stayed high.
Why? In the process of keeping bees, we had become more aware of what makes good bee habitat. We planted flowering landscapes and trees. We inter-seeded the pastures with legumes like Birdsfoot Trefoil that are great sources of food for bees, and we had become mindful not to take away important food sources, like mowing off the dandelions in the yard.
We had also learned about the limitations of honeybees, which are not native to North America. For these little workers, it must be at least 55 degrees outside for them to fly. For early fruiting crops, such as apples, this means that the whole blooming season can pass without the honeybees being able to reach it. Other native varieties of bees, like the Blue Orchard Bee, can fly at cooler temperatures. So we built homes for these fuzzy, dark blue fly-like bees and ordered some stock to add to the farm’s population.
Through all this work and care while keeping honeybees, our native populations had flourished as well. This year, as the apples bloomed, they were coated by several kinds of bumble bees, blue orchard bees, and carpenter bees. All were so busy and happy, eager to be out in the sunshine. I felt like a bee paparazzi with my camera, trying to snap a picture of them as they hurried about.
The transformation on our farm into pollinator heaven can happen anywhere in the Northwoods. As honeybees suffer nationwide, the local solution may be best worked by encouraging our diversity of native pollinators. Some of this is a balance. For instance, milkweed is an essential food for Monarch butterflies. But milkweed is poisonous to sheep. So, while we have to pull the milkweed in the sheep pastures, we leave other parts of the farm where the milkweed flourishes unharmed.
Want to be part of helping pollinators succeed? Here are some steps you can take this year to encourage native pollinators:
• Don’t mow the dandelions. They are a critical early source of pollen, which bees use to feed their babies. You can mow them when they’re going to seed, but let those golden flowers go for the bees to enjoy.
• Bees love yards filled with clovers and other blooming species that are yard-friendly. You can buy legume seeds to interplant in your yard. White Dutch clover stays short and can be mowed once the blooms are finished, and they bloom after the dandelions, offering additional needed food.
• Plant native Wisconsin flower beds and buffers that are good for pollinators. Bee balm, wild mints, lilies, butterfly weed, and many others offer great food and habitat for bees and butterflies of all kinds. Flowering shrubs and trees (like crabapple) are also excellent food sources for bees.
• Avoid mowing early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Bees can only fly when the temperatures are warm enough. Bumble bees will often hunker down out in the grass or on flowers overnight instead of returning to the nest or hive. They can become so coated with dew that they cannot move out of the way of the mower, so wait until the dew has dried and the bees can fly before mowing.
• Don’t spray or fog your yard. Bees are very sensitive to insect-killing chemicals, and many of them have their homes in the ground. On our farm, we use bug-zapping night lights to reduce the populations of pesky insects. Bees are asleep at night, so this non-chemical treatment doesn’t affect them.
• During a dry spell, leave out a shallow dish or tray of water. Place rocks or pieces of wood in the dish, so the bees have a safe place to perch and catch a drink. The nectar that bees gather is to take home to the family hive, and they need additional fluids to keep working.
Encourage friends, family, and neighbors to also be pollinator protectors. So, here’s to those busy little fuzzy friends helping make our local food possible!
See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. (715) 462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com