Bee-friendly gardening

Local growers came together recently to learn tips for better-fed bees

To bee or not to bee: That is the question that has many people buzzing lately.

More than 30 people — beekeepers, farmers, ranchers and Master Gardeners — swarmed the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center for a May symposium on something called the Bee Friendly Farming Initiative.

Learn more

www.beegirl.org (Bee Girl, Sarah Red-Laird's nonprofit)

www.pfspbees.org (Partners for Sustainable Pollination)

www.nrcs.usda.gov (Natural Resources Conservation Service)

www.xerces.org (The Xerces Society)

The point of the initiative, according to beekeeper Sarah Red-Laird, is to inspire people to start addressing the problem of bee nutrition.

"Honeybees need a polynutritional diet," she says. "And they're getting the equivalent of Jif peanut butter on Wonder Bread year after year."

Red-Laird, "queen bee" of the nonprofit Bee Girl, coordinated the symposium with Maud Powell of the Oregon State University Extension. The Bee Friendly Farming Initiative is sponsored by Partners for Sustainable Pollination and The Xerces Society, a nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of invertebrates. Its goals are to recognize "bee-friendly farmers" by offering certification and monetary support and to encourage people to support bees by purchasing products sporting the BFF label.

Phil and Ann Dollison, who own a small ranch near Ruch, kept bees for the first time last year. They harvested nearly 40 pounds of honey but lost their hives to colony collapse disorder. This year, they plan to host two hives, and they attended the symposium to learn how to help their bees thrive.

"I'm not doing it for the money," says Phil Dollison. "I'm just interested in bees. They're fascinating."

The bee/flower relationship is one of nature's most elegant. Of course, bees aren't the only pollinator — butterflies, moths, hummingbirds and flies share the job. But bees are by far the most important. Farmers have come to rely on imported honeybees to pollinate their crops, but we lose about 30 percent of them each year to colony collapse disorder. This deadly syndrome is aggravated by a combination of factors — loss of habitat, weather extremes, increased pesticide use and parasitic varroa mites, which chew on bees and act as vectors for diseases. The common denominator in afflicted hives is nutritional stress brought on by lack of adequate forage.

"We're offering bees one thing to eat, and it's laden with pesticides," says Red-Laird.

While industrial agriculture isn't exactly "pro-pollinator," urban sprawl eats up wild places where bees could feed and nest. For a bee, the manicured green lawn is a nutritional desert. Even well-intentioned gardeners who plant with natives don't do bees any favors by burying soil under a thick layer of mulch.

"Ground-nesting bees need loose, uncovered soil to burrow into," says Red-Laird.

Preventing "mulch madness" is one of Red-Laird's many goals. Through Bee Girl she offers community classes, classroom presentations and one-on-one consultations with beekeepers.

Red-Laird studied colony collapse disorder at the University of Montana and worked for an organization called Bee Alert Technology Inc., where she trained bomb-sniffing bees.

"I've always had a weird affinity for honeybees," says Red-Laird, who grew up in Southern Oregon. "I feel connected to them literally and esoterically."

Her organization provides local support for the BFF initiative with help from OSU Extension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Bee-friendly farmers must provide nesting habitat for bees and devote at least 6 percent of their farms' acreage to bee food plants. They also must make pollinator health a priority during pesticide applications.

In return, growers who become certified may use the BFF logo on their products, literature and websites. As the initiative picks up steam, eco-conscious consumers may choose BFF products in the same way they choose organic produce and cage-free eggs.

So far, nearly 200 growers in 31 states and three Canadian provinces have become certified. Locally, a handful of small growers have taken advantage of the program, but Red-Laird hopes that number will increase as the buzz grows louder. Harry & David has expressed interest in planting for pollinators, and the BFF logo appears in the latest version of THRIVE's "Rogue Flavor Guide."

Other benefits of planting for bees may include increased yields and a greater abundance of other beneficial insects, which can help wean growers off pesticides. To encourage bee-friendly farming, the Extension offers classes on integrated pest management through its Small Farms program. NRCS works with growers to develop conservation plans.

"This is a strictly voluntary program," says Pete Winnick of NRCS. The agency's environmental-quality incentive program offers up to 90 percent in financial support to sweeten the deal.

But you don't have to be a grower to plant for bees. The BFF initiative invites farmers, beekeepers, parks, schools and any individuals interested — to participate.

Master Gardener Fran Ryan of Ashland, who attended the symposium, enjoys sharing her yard with bees, which sometimes brush against her face while she's weeding. She already grows plenty of lavender, salvia and California poppies, all excellent forage plants.

"I'd like to do more," she says.

Juliet Grable is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at julietgrable@yahoo.com.


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