Every summer gardeners and farmers call West Sound Beekeepers and Stedman’s Bee Supplies looking for pollination services – usually for free! This year I’ve talked to several farmers who were interested in having someone put a honeybee hive on their property for pollination. As we talked I realized that there is very little public awareness of the basic facts about honeybee pollination in general and Kitsap in particular. Everyone has the romantic notion that bees can make honey from their acre of flowers. If only it were that easy!
Here’s a quick primer on honeybee pollination for any farmer or gardener.
Honeybees forage up to three miles for nectar.
No garden or farm in Kitsap is large enough to support even one small honeybee colony. For beekeepers that’s good news, it means you don’t have to worry about providing forage to keep bees. For farmers and gardeners it’s bad news, it means that your farm or garden provides a small percentage of what the bees will actually need to collect. Also, it means that the bees will be exposed to the pesticides that your neighbors are using in a three-mile radius.
Honeybees make honey from nectar.
Bees forage for quite a few substances. Most flowers give pollen, which honeybees make into a nutritious substance we call bee bread; in any given three-mile area in Kitsap there are quite a few different pollen sources. Bee bread however is a small part of what they eat. They mainly subsist on honey, and they don’t make honey from pollen, but from plants that give nectar.
In Kitsap the major nectar source is blackberries.
We have a few minor nectar sources – spring maple trees, late summer knapweed and fireweed. However our major varietal is blackberry, so much so that beekeepers talk about “nectar flow” when the blackberry blossoms open in June, and “nectar dearth” when the blossoms give out in July. That’s the end of the nectar gathering season here. If you miss that, you won’t have honey.
Kitsap agriculture is centered on small farms and urban farms that don’t offer nectar sources. The situation is different elsewhere. For example, in Clallam County around Sequim where there are major lavender farms, beekeepers routinely set up apiaries in the fields, and collect lavender honey, which is often sold straight from the farm’s store.
By the way – this means that poison intended to control blackberries risks bees. Whatever you do, don’t spray the blackberry flowers! That will kill all the bees that might pollinate your veggies and fruits.
Bees are livestock and need feeding and inspection.
When the nectar flow stops, the bees still need nectar to make into honey to get through the winter. Beekeepers feed a sugar water solution from quart jars and replace the jars once a week or more from mid-August to October.
Bees also get diseases, some of which are easy to treat, others which are dangerous and difficult. Beekeepers inspect their colonies for signs of disease as well.
Kitsap County beekeeping is largely backyard beekeeping.
Kitsap beekeepers are generally hobbyists. Bees do give honey and other products for sale, but if you are going to have a honey business you have to be good at it, lucky, and invest quite a few years make a profit.
Our apiary is right outside the shop, where we can look through the window at the hives, and can pop out to replace jars of feed or inspect hives for disease at any minute of the day. Hobbyist beekeepers love watching the bees! We visit each other’s apiaries too.
We don’t generally pick up our hives and take them anywhere. Transporting a hive means securing the entrance, breaking apart the boxes which stack to make the parts of the hive, and hauling a box of 10,000 or more bees from one place to another. Generally in Kitsap beekeepers only move bees to follow a nectar flow, specifically to get to the mountains for fireweed.
Moving a hive to someone else’s property exposes the hive to the risks of that property, makes it more difficult to feed and monitor for disease, and deprives the beekeeper of the ongoing pleasure of watching the bees, which in Kitsap is pretty much the whole payoff. For that reason hobbyists are not good candidates to provide pollination services.
Honeybee pollination is a commercial service.
Commercial pollinators travel to California for almond pollination. Three-quarters of the honeybees in the country converge on the almond trees in February (that’s the source of many ills, but that subject needs its own post). Going rate in 2012 was $155 per hive for the duration of the almond flowering, one month at most. Eastern Washington beekeepers take their colonies to the almond groves, then back to the orchards for spring pollination, bringing in another $60 or so for rental of the same hive.
Resources to investigate commercial pollination – to buy or sell!
- Commercial guide: WSU joined with Oregon State University and University of Idaho to produce this pamphlet, “Evaluating Honey Bee Colonies for Pollination, A Guide for Commercial Growers and Beekeepers”.
- Issues: in The Status and Future of Washington Apiculture (Beekeeping) former
WSDA State Apiarist James C Bach ran the economic numbers and noted the difficulty of making a living keeping bees.
Grow your own
With no local commercial services, and no real benefit to hobbyists to provide pollination, the best option for gardeners and farmers is to grow your own bees.
Option one: become a beekeeper
It’s not as hard as you might think. The initial investment is about $200 per hive, and you’ll need two, plus about $100 in clothing and other gear. The local club, West Sound Beekeepers Association, regularly teaches beginner classes. The club is oriented to mentoring and has many knowledgeable members. It’s also very open to experimentation and new methods of beekeeping. The time investment isn’t all that onerous, especially if you take the natural beekeeping route. I know a farmer who dumps a package of bees into his warre hive every year and leaves them alone for the rest of the year.
Option two: offer an attractive outyard
There is at least one beekeeper in Kitsap who has a large enough operation to need to place bees outside their property. Other beekeepers are becoming interested in establishing an outyard to mitigate the risk of a single poison kill destroying the entire apiary, as happened to one county beekeeper this year when a neighbor sprayed blackberry flowers (don’t do this!)
If you’re going to set up an outyard for a beekeeper, here’s what will make it attractive:
- Easy access. The beekeeper has to be able to drive up to the hive at any time to bring equipment to the hive.
- Assistance. The beekeeper I know who is placing hives in outyards requires that the landowner feed the bees through nectar dearth. This isn’t particularly hazardous and is normally done without protective clothing.
- Be knowledgeable. There are many pressures on bees, in particular new waves of diseases that threaten the honeybee population. The more you know, the easier it will be for you to connect with the beekeeper.
Setting up an outyard is a great way to partner with a beekeeper. If you’re not all that interested in beekeeping, you just want your crops to be pollinated, your best option is to establish native bee habitat.
Option three: provide native habitat
If beekeeping simply isn’t for you, you’re in luck! Washington state has literally hundreds of native bees. If you provide even a small amount of habitat you will have bees throughout the entire year.
Native bees have some advantages over honeybees and some disadvantages. Disadvantages: you remember the honeybee travels 3 miles to forage, while native bees only fly a few hundred feet from their habitat. Honeybees also forage throughout the year, while each native bee has a limited season. Advantages: native bees tend to fly in slightly cooler temperatures than honeybees and take moist weather a little better. Also, of course, you don’t have to feed native bees! Providing habitat is quite a bit less expensive than buying wooden hives too.
Whichever route you choose, blackberries – invasive as well as native – just went from weed to pollination partner! Good luck, and don’t hesitate to talk to the bee club or a master gardener, we’re always happy to point you to educational resources.