Mark O’Malley and Paul Tanner, PG, LEP
August 22 is National Honey Bee Day
This post is the first of two concerning insects. Today’s subject concerns honeybees, the beloved non-native insects that were first brought to North America in colonial times. About 20% of OTO staff have direct experience with honeybees; one engineer worked with a commercial beekeeper in high school, two chemists kept bees earlier in life, two geologists are current backyard beekeepers, and another keeps talking about starting beekeeping, and we know she will one day. That 20% statistic seems high. Maybe is a coincidence; maybe it’s because we are a smallish company, or maybe it points to the professional earth sciences attracting certain kinds of flowery environmentally-minded people?
Most honeybee media reports nowadays are alarming and negative. Commercial beekeepers that offer traveling pollination services have experienced unprecedented die-off of honeybee stocks from a combination of stressors (pesticides, transportation stress, monoculture/food non-diversity, internal and external mites and disease). The upside is that a shift in industrial agricultural practices has started; in fact some growers are opting to secure their crop pollination by having permanent hives and beekeepers on staff and planning for a greater diversity of pollen and nectar sources in hedgerows between monoculture fields.
In a similar vein, we all can adapt and do our part to help out honeybees by: 1) consciously considering bees in our landscaping plans; 2) exercising our purchasing power, and; 3) perhaps trying to farm this popular social insect ourselves.
Mark and Paul, the two active OTO beekeepers, wish to offer a top ten list of pro-bee considerations for you to contemplate:
- Mark: Planting for Bees is Rewarding! See the attached list of honeybee –friendly plants. Example: you might consider planting asters instead of ho-hum chrysanthemums this fall. Asters are perennial, and are positively loaded with pollen and nectar in September and October, providing a great source of nectar and pollen for bees preparing for winter. That said, bees are efficient at focusing on the richest nectar and pollen source available; honeybees forage as much as three miles from their home, and are happy to pass over your beautifully landscaped honeybee-friendly flowerbeds to reach those freshly blossomed white flowers on a thorny brush pile. A plant that’s producing nectar one day, is devoid of bees three days later. Another thing, bees really like trees. The broad root systems of trees produce a strong nectar flow and loads of pollen. Even trees that a common person might not associate with honeybees are valuable resources. Red maples produce some of the first early spring buds targeted by bees. The yellow pollen from pine trees that coats windshields – bees love it!
- Paul: Beekeeping Teaches Energy Conservation: As any good manager knows, delegating tasks to informed, qualified, diligent staff leads to client satisfaction and makes the manager look good. Honeybees come pre-trained with an established hierarchy, they instinctively know their particular jobs, and they are vivacious, loyal and industrious. My job is to keep the queen happy, keep up with medicine and feeding, and give the colony ample room to grow. The actual setup, checkups and honey extraction are indeed backbreaking work and intensive for about four weekend days per year. Much of beekeeping, however, is watching them do the work, with morning coffee in hand, and provides truly some of the best moments in my work week. While I’m also a fan of planting for honeybees, on the flip-side; keeping a wild spot, bramble patch or hedgerow on your property takes no effort, will sustain weedy blooms all season long- helping bees and the environment and saving you effort, giving you more time in August for reading the great American novel or your coworker’s thousand-page book on coal tar sites.
- Mark: Support your Local Beekeeper: If you would rather not farm a social insect, your purchasing power can help support your local beekeeper. Beekeeping is increasingly popular and chances are, you can find local honey, beeswax-related soap, cosmetics, candles and even furniture polish at your local farmer’s market or neighborhood market. All this helps your local beekeeper support their operation and keep healthy bee populations thriving.
- Paul: Get Invited to More Social Gatherings: Not that beekeeping types are that good looking or popular, but try bringing a jar of local honey to your next dinner party instead of a bottle of wine or tired bouquet of flowers. Your social calendar may change for the better!
- Mark: A Lesson in Foundation Engineering: This spring, with the aid of a bubble level these two hives were set-up perfectly (see photo). The hive on the left is on a foundation of cinder blocks, with cement pavers which help spreads the load. The hive to the right is just on cinder blocks with a slightly smaller footprint. Over time, the hives grew taller from one box to five. By early July the hives neared 300 pounds each. The hive on the left with the spread concrete base has remained level. The soil beneath the “Leaning Hive of Hampden” to the right, dried out and compressed under the hive’s weight. Note to self, when expanding operations in 2019, seek advice from a Geotechnical Engineer.
- Paul: Intensive Focus: When I am working my bees, the sights, sounds and smells are so powerful… like all good art or creative practice, moments of time seem to slow down while paradoxically an hour can pass by in a minute. When working an open beehive, it is not possible to think about anything else – each breath, each movement has true significance. In an open hive, there’s the intoxicating smell of fresh wax, nectar, pollen, honey and smoke – and the added bonus of immediate gratification – sucking on a piece of warm honey-filled comb, fresh from the hive. Then there’s the waggle dance, the queen’s distinctive shape, the baby bee emerging from a nursery cell, the selfless kamikaze attack from angry bees falling on thick leather gloves, mesh and protective clothing – protective clothing that is guaranteed 99% effective!
- Mark: Beekeeping can Actually Socialize Scientist-Types: Hanging out with a social insect actually rubs off on the introvert. Beginning beekeepers have a steep learning curve – each year the Worcester County Massachusetts Beekeepers Association puts on an 8-week course for new beekeepers in late winter/early spring. The classes are typically one night a week for two hours. Bee school will present you will information for selecting the Site of your first hive (or two). A Location with morning sun, a clear flight path and space to work around the hive is key. Over 400 people attend! Amateur and expert beekeepers, state apiary inspectors, college professors, and even folks that have performed studies with honeybees for NASA and NOAA give presentations and instructions for those just starting out. It’s a great place to network.
- Paul: Beehives Can be Unobtrusive: This year I attended a 4th of July block party. There were bands, there was dancing, it was hot, humid, sweaty and there were many open containers of sugary and malty beverages. The neighbor’s two beehives were located behind a hedge, about 75 feet from the revelry. There were no honeybees in sight, they are much too busy performing work; gathering nectar and pollen or by the brook, gathering water to cool off the hive. While my hives are in the woods (photo above), I’m intrigued by rooftop hives in urban centers, particularly in NYC. Of course you would want to check your local ordinances before you consider placing a hive at your home.
- Mark: Beekeeping Increases Your Awareness: In the springtime, if the driver in front of you slows as they pass an orchard or field of dandelions, you know you’re behind a beekeeper. I never thought a hobby dealing with insects would lead me to spend so much time looking at plants, which inevitably leads to greater awareness in general. The variations in rainfall, sunlight and plant cover impart large changes in honey yield and subtle changes in the taste of honey from year to year. To a beekeeper, evaluating weather patterns and blooming plants can be like gazing into a crystal ball, and it’s fun to guess how the future will taste.
- Paul: The Health Effects of Honey: Huh? If you think honey will help your allergies, sure I’ll sell you a jar! I’m a skeptic – Honey, being a simple sugar, is readily converted to energy in the human digestive system. I don’t personally believe that pollen in the honey actually survives in the human gut to the extent that it helps with immunity to allergens. What’s more, I don’t think my borderline excessive personal consumption of honey is particularly healthy….. but come to think of it… at least I don’t have allergies!
Please join us to commemorate National Honeybee Day on August 22. Each of us can do our part. We can plant bee-friendly landscapes and gardens, we can use our purchasing power to buy locally produced honey and related products and we can consider looking into beekeeping.
Put some Honey on it!
The second post in this series will concern native bees, an often overlooked class of mostly solitary insects that compete with imported honeybees, and offer important pollination services to most native plants, forest ecosystems and agriculture. Did you know most native bees don’t sting?
Until then, Bee Well,
Mark and Paul.