A few weeks ago, I was working outside with volunteers on my urban farm, which happens to be located on a high school campus. A man approached us as we ladled wood chips into a wheelbarrow, his shoulders weighted with a Ghost Busters-like backpack sprayer full of God-knows-what. I couldn’t take my eyes off the contraption as I greeted him, propping my shovel against my hip and wiping my hands on my bandana.
"How’s it going? Can I help you?" I asked.
He cut right to the chase. “Can I spray that?”
I squinted and looked to where he was pointing. A small patch of white clover bubbled up from the grass at the edge of the farm. “That?” I asked, a little too incredulous. “No way,” I said, realizing that he probably had already sprayed here a hundred times before. I got a little steamed.
I gave him half an earful about organic farming, how pollination works, and the dying bees before he finally walked off. Once he was out of earshot, I let out a frustrated groan. “Whyyyyyy!?” I nearly shouted. “I just don’t get it, why does he need to kill every little weed? It’s clover for God’s sake; it’s a flower.”
"You’re asking the wrong guy," said the volunteer next to me. I had forgotten he just happened to work for a local lawn care company, the kind that uses chemicals to make obsessively green, manicured, weed-free lawns. Maybe volunteering with a young, generally pleasant urban farmer/beekeeper would have a positive influence on him and he would rush home to build a rain barrel and read Silent Spring.
"Please, tell me. I need your perspective," I said.
"To tell you the truth," he said, "that clover was bugging me from the second I got here. It just bugs me." I continued shoveling in silence. He didn’t come back after that.
Every time I speak about bees, I emphasize that one of the most important (and simple) things you can do to help honeybees (birds, too) is to plant flowers. Flowers = bee food. Even more importantly, don’t contaminate that food. This means synthetic fertilizers (Miracle Gro), pesticides and even herbicides and fungicides are harmful to honeybees and other pollinators. Honeybees that consume pollen that contains amounts of commonly used fungicides at levels too low to cause the bee’s death still may leave them more susceptible to infection by a gut parasite (according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and University of Maryland).
Last week, while visiting a friend who farms in a city park, I learned that DPW had sprayed Round Up around his hives, wiping out 10,000 bees and two queens. He called the city and complained. They told him it wouldn’t happen again, but he sounded just as dubious and defeated as I had the day Ghost Buster man asked if he could kill my clover. The folks who were spraying weren’t evil. They were just doing their jobs, right?
“Man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself,” wrote Rachel Carson. How do we shift the cultural mindset, so at war with nature, so obsessed with eradicating weeds and pests with quick-fix chemicals? Mosquitos in the backyard? Douse yourself in bug spray. Yellow Jackets make a home in your shed? Raid ‘em. Dandelions an eyesore? The perfect lawn is just a spray away.
"A weed is a plant that has mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows," said Doug Larson. I’m still looking for that inspirational quote about mosquitos.
Let’s check in. This beekeeping season had a rather solemn start, but my spirit was soon rejuvenated with the warmth and support of friends. In early April, I was sad to learn that during our particularly brutal winter, all five Bee Public hives were lost. A devastating blow, and more than enough to make a beginning beekeeper like me (more than) slightly depressed.
A couple weeks later, an article I had written about my foray into beekeeping was published in Indy Monthly. And then I was asked to be on NPR, along with George and Chris Plews, two enthusiastic honeybee advocates who offered to help fund rooftop bees at our Sky Farm (they also funded the rooftop bees at WFYI). At the same time, a flood of unprecedented support came from friends, family, and complete strangers, helping me to raise funds online for replacement bees. The universe was giving me a much-needed pep talk.
In May, I placed two three pound packages of bees at South Circle Farm and Growing Places Indy and then donated one additional package to each farm with the extra funds raised. This gave me an idea— I’m thinking of holding a fundraiser of sorts every spring to replenish any lost bees at urban farms that need them.
So how are the new bees doing? Really, really well. We’ve had a fairly mild summer and I think everyone’s enjoying it. Because I have fewer hives to tend this season (I didn’t find any swarms, darn.), I’ve been focusing more on Bee Public’s mission of outreach and education. In 2014, I have held workshops and taught beekeeping classes at Whole Foods, Georgetown Market, Twenty4Change, Pogue’s Run Grocer, Books and Brews, and Fall Creek Gardens. Coming up very soon, I’ll be talking about honeybees and their integral role in our food system at The Good Earth Natural Foods in late August and at a panel discussion on animal husbandry at City Market on Wednesday, August 6.
Here in the Midwest, we’re experiencing some freakishly frigid weather. I’m talking record breaking, with its own catchy/ominous name— the Polar Vortex.
As the snow fell and temps plummeted, lots of folks dashed to the grocery store to stock up on essentials, returning home to cuddle up for warmth. That’s not too far off from what bees do for the winter months.
Honeybees are one of the only insects that survive the winter as a hive. They form a “winter cluster” inside the hive as soon as the temperature dips below 55°F. The winter cluster remains remarkably warm (95°F).
Bees don’t hibernate like bears, instead they keep moving and rotating, the queen in the center, to keep the cluster’s temp up. No doubt working up quite an appetite.
As a beekeeper, I can help them out by creating a windbreak (making sure to keep the entrance open) and tilting the hive ever-so-slightly forward so any condensation drips out, not on the bees.
Today it’s very cold. The bees are clustered up, conserving energy, and eating their nutritious honey stores, which they spent all summer long gathering in preparation for a day like today. Not unlike our own frantic, pre-snowpocalypse trip to the store for the bread and milk.