I recently began to host a honeybee project on the farm. It has been over 30 years since I first kept bees on our farm. I tried them for about 3 years but gave up when mice got into my hives that I was trying to keep over winter in my shed. My father and I had been running the farm together but he was then serving as the President of the Montana Farm Bureau so was traveling a lot and much of the responsibilities fell to me. Like any livestock, the bees did not take care of themselves and needed to be tended and watched over. Although I loved bee keeping, I had to give it up, as I just did not have time to care for them properly. I was excited a few months ago when one of my neighbors drove into my yard accompanied by a beekeeper looking for organic acres to locate their bees. I told them I was very interested in working with them. We are currently hosting 24 hives and hope to have a few hives next year brought early enough to help with the pollination of my orchard, which is now being done by other not so efficient insect pollinators. We also hope to host another bee yard on the north end of our farm to complement the one now located on the south end of it. Apart from enjoying the honey we will share (we are paid in honey rather than cash for hosting the bees), the bees will be an important addition to the farm.
Honeybees are in fact Nature’s greatest pollinators and are quite valuable as they contribute to the successes of agriculture and industry. In fact, the monetary value of honeybees as commercial pollinators in the United States is estimated at about $15 billion annually with them doing almost 80% of all crop pollination.
Their large colonies housed in wooden boxes called suppers, can be moved to wherever they are needed. Two thick (deep suppers) are placed on the bottom. This is where the queen lives. She lays one egg in each honeycomb cell and her workers care and feed the growing larva. A queen excluder, a wire mesh whose holes allow the workers to pass but not the larger queen, keeps the queen out of the upper shallow suppers where the excess honey is stored and then harvested once those suppers are full. The hives must be checked regularly, not only to see if the hive is strong and how the honey production is going. The honey production will determine when new suppers are required as they are only added as needed. Also, the beekeeper will check the developing brood and insure the queen is alive and well and still laying eggs.
Honeybees also practice flower fidelity, which makes them very efficient pollinators. Flower fidelity means that they concentrate on one specific species of flower when gathering and transferring pollen even though they are attracted to a large variety of flowers.
Honeybees are masters at finding the most abundant and sweetest source of nectar near the colony. Scouts communicate information about the source to their fellow workers in the hive with what is called “dance language”. Even in the darkness of the hive, the direction and distance to the new found source of nectar is easily understood from the dance. The odor of the nectar that the dancer provides gives the follow workers a clue as to what kind of flower the dancer has found.
The simple pollination process—the transfer of pollen grains from the male portion of a flower (anther) to the female reproductive portion of the flower (stigma), is vital for both plants and humans. Without pollination, plants would not be able to reproduce and crop bearing plants would not be fertilized enough for necessary food production.
It’s always fascinating to me how everything in nature is so synergistically connected. You really understand this when you farm organically. Rather than farm with a totally artificial system depending on huge inputs as a crutch, which floods the land with toxic chemicals, we harness or imitate nature’s amazing agro-culture. We work with the natural flow of things, enhancing them where we can and addressing weaknesses when and where they occur, all in a sustainable and responsible manner. It works. It’s fun. Everybody wins, including the bees.