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Too Many Bees or Too Little Forage?

Too Many Bees or Too Little Forage?

This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of The Extractor.

Working in the restaurant industry, and in life generally, I meet a lot of people.  Whenever I mention that I research sustainable beekeeping people respond very positively.  They often follow up their affirmations with something along the lines of “my neighbor keeps bees and they seem to be doing well, would you like to keep some on my property?” or “I’d really like to keep bees on my property, is it hard to get started?”  To this I always have the same response: the best thing you can do to help the honey bee is not to keep a colony but to plant ample and diverse forage for all pollinators.  As beekeepers we know this already; we understand that each colony needs at minimum one acre of forage to survive year to year.  Borrowing from the preceding link, many beekeepers believe we need two to five acres of forage per colony.  Do we apply this knowledge in practice?

 Santa Rosa: enough forage?

Santa Rosa: enough forage?

There are over four hundred members in the Sonoma County Beekeeper’s Association.  I think this is fantastic and am continuously impressed with those of you I meet at various occasions, presentations, and meetings.  When we think about forage for our bees, though, this means that should each of us have a single hive we would require four hundred acres of forage.  Many of us have at least two hives so we are closer to needing eight hundred acres of forage.  Some of us have larger operations of ten, twelve hives, or more!  Note that this simple calculation takes the lowest acreage necessary and ignores the needs of all other pollinators including native bees, hummingbirds, butterflies, bats, and so forth.  The point is obvious: each colony may only require one acre of quality forage for sustenance but the ecosystem upon which the colony relies will need more, perhaps five acres per colony.  I believe we should take this argument seriously.

 Does this Vermont apiary provide over seventeen acres of forage?

Does this Vermont apiary provide over seventeen acres of forage?

Sonoma County has 1,576 square miles of land, or just over a million acres.  Of this, around twenty five percent is residential for a total of about 250,000 acres.  Given that residential land includes structures such as houses and garages as well as roadways leading to said structures, how much is forage for pollinators?  Or perhaps a better question: out of what forage exists, how much is accessible to our honey bees and other pollinators?  The answer is clear: we beekeepers are relying on forage that we do not provide to sustain our colonies.  As more and more people become beekeepers and as our apiaries expand, this “free” forage will become less and less viable.  Should agricultural practices shift or natural disasters strike again, we may see a dearth in pollen and nectar flows.  Who knows what the climate will bring?  No matter the speculation, there is one conclusion that is certain to be of benefit to our honey bees, pollinators at large, and ourselves as apiarists.  We must plant more forage.

 Vineyards produce no nectar and their pollen is compromised by pesticides and fungicides.

Vineyards produce no nectar and their pollen is compromised by pesticides and fungicides.

And there is no better time to begin planning then now!  Spring has apparently arrived and the climate is ideal for planting diverse flowering plants that will bloom year round.  Don’t know what to plant?  Check out Pollinator Partnership’s ecoregion planting guides that can be tailored to your specific region.  You may also enjoy The Xerces Society’s planting guides.  Better yet, head out to your favorite nursery and ask!  Planting forage is fun and there is little more satisfying than watching a blooming shrub be mobbed by honey bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. 

 California Lilac (Ceanothus 'Concha'): a native shrub of great ecosystem value.

California Lilac (Ceanothus 'Concha'): a native shrub of great ecosystem value.

So as we begin a new season of beekeeping, let us remember that the honey bee is only half the equation.  Without adequate and diverse forage that blooms throughout the year our colonies will not be healthy enough to overwinter and consequently we, as bee-keepers, we will be doing our bees a disservice.  Happy planting!


Finding Wild Bees

Finding Wild Bees

Studies in PermApiculture: Swarm Traps

Studies in PermApiculture: Swarm Traps