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Honey of an event

Sarah Red-Laird has a thing about buckwheat.

The grain is shaping up as a delicious staple for bees, those vital pollinators who love its nectar and pollen.

Red-Laird, an Ashland native who runs a nonprofit called "Bee Girl," houses her hives on East Nevada Street near Ashland and is growing a hardy, organic strain of buckwheat that can help bees thrive, as well as be used as a model for local farmers and be marketed as grain.

Working with Oregon State University and Washington State University, Red-Laird is using her “Buckwheat for Bees” program to find the best strains to replace the bee-friendly hay, alfalfa, cow pasture, clover and flowers that are being lost to wine grapes and cannabis.

This shift means less habitat for bees, which are essential to plant health and the entire food chain.

“The trend is a big problem,” she says. “We could have a bee habitat that’s completely obliterated. We’re in phase one of finding the best buckwheat and getting farmers growing it.”

She has almost 2 acres of Koto buckwheat, and “bees love it,” she notes.

She says this is quantified by the amount of nectar bees bring back to the hive. She sends the pollen to OSU experts for analysis, and they tell her the breakdown of crude pollen in it. Bees use pollen to feed their larvae.

Cannabis and grapes are good sources of pollen and nectar for bees, but buckwheat is better, is easy and cheap to grow, out-competes weeds, she says, and can be plowed under to enrich soil. She seeks to get cannabis and grape growers to augment with buckwheat.

Bee Girl’s annual fundraiser is called the “Hive to Table” banquet, a five-course sweet feast at  historic Hanley Farm, with each course using Bee Girl honey. It will be in the farm-to-table style, with food from local farmers. It’s at 7 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 26, and costs $70. Emcee is Green River College Honeybees professor Danny Najera. The event will include beer, mead, a silent auction, and live music by Son Ravello.

Farm chef is Kristen Lyon. Menu items include Rise Up Rosemary Focaccia with Rogue Creamery Whipped Honey Butter and Lavender Sea Salt; Miso Basil Glazed Salmon with Saffron Coconut Rice and Honey Lime Pistachio Dusted Green Beans; and Brown Butter Ice Cream with a Crunchy Caramel Cookie, Honey Glazed Bacon Crumbles, Fresh Blackberries and Basil.

Red-Laird's “Kids and Bees” program annually reaches 800 area third-graders. They get a unit of it daily for a week, learning about honey, beeswax, habitat, identification and how to taste the seven different kinds of honey, using a tasting wheel.

Some flavors are known as woody, bitter, burned and one, she notes, is actually called cat pee, which gives students a big laugh. “The kids also build their own bee habitat, with food, water and shelter for them. The purpose is to alleviate a lot of fear around bees and to understand their role in where our food comes from,” she says.

Bee Girl collaborates with the American Beekeeping Federation, the Eastern and Western Apicultural Societies, Montana Farmers Union, ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum, and The Farm at Southern Oregon University, says Red-Laird, who is a graduate of Ashland High School and the University of Montana.

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Sarah Red-Laird walks through buckwheat she planted last spring for bee pollination. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]