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Here comes the sun(flowers)

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Southern Oregon has a Mediterranean climate, which means certain crops, such as grapes, grow very well here.

Some people even call the Rogue Valley the next Napa Valley, which is great for tourism and the local economy, but not so great for bees.

According to Sarah “Bee Girl” Red-Laird, grapes are self-pollinating, meaning bees have no use for them. She said vineyards — and other non-pollinator-friendly monocrop farms — often remove crucial bee habitats.

So, she has started a pilot program at Irvine & Roberts Winery in Ashland to replace bee habitat with an 1,800-square-foot plot of sunflowers. She calls the pilot program “Bee Friendly Vineyards.”

With the help of the winemaker and the blessings of the owner, she maintains and monitors the patch near the tasting room at 1614 Emigrant Creek Road. She said the bee counts have been steadily rising since she planted the flowers in April.

Sunflowers attract many varieties of bees, she said, and recent research shows that sunflowers act like medicine to bees.

That was one of the reasons she chose to plant sunflowers. She was inspired after touring Argyle Vineyards in the Willamette Valley, where she learned about LIVE certification, a way for vineyards to rack up points for sustainable practices such as offering pollinator habitat.

“The vineyard manager showed me all of the projects that he was working on, and my favorite was a 3-acre plot of sunflowers buried among the expansive vineyard,” Red-Laird said.

She said it’s crucial to plant flowers, because solitary bees and bumble bees lay their eggs directly on a rolled-up ball of pollen.

“Honeybees will visit an average of 2 million flowers to make 1 pound of honey,” Red-Laird said. “They need 60 to 80 pounds to live through the winter, and eat a whole lot more than that in the spring and summer as they are working.”

One honeybee will only make 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its whole life, so for bees to produce enough — not just for themselves, but for us too — we need a lot of bees and a lot of flowers. Plus, about 86% of plants need a pollinator to reproduce, Red-Laird said.

While planning with Irvine & Roberts winemaker Vince Vidrine, they decided on a small-scale test plot between the vineyard and the road. That way the bees would be protected if the grapes ever have to be sprayed with pesticides, and the flowers are still placed in a cheery spot for visitors to see while driving to the tasting room.

Vidrine said the vineyard does not use chemical pesticides, adding that he has been inspired by working with Red-Laird to be more conscientious about pollinators.

“Sarah is almost a pollinator herself,” Vidrine said. “She’s inspired me to think about pollinator health. We’re really interested in regenerative agriculture.”

He said he is researching flower mixes and vegetation that can be managed on the property other than grapes, such as lupines, which can help crops by providing erosion control while also providing pollinator habitat.

Red-Laird said they are working on plans to provide bee habitat between the rows of grapes and discussing strategy for some regenerative agriculture methods such as no-till bee-friendly cover crops and sheep grazing.

She said after seven years of asking vineyard owners in the Rogue, Willamette, Napa and Sonoma Valleys, Doug Irvine was the first owner open to the idea of collaborating on a pollinator project.

“Wine grapes are self-pollinating and don’t need bees, so it’s kind of a hard sell to vineyard managers,” Red-Laird said. “Irvinee & Roberts jumped on the project because of their passion for having a positive effect on the landscape, and for being part of the solution with environmental issues. Also, Doug really loves bees and honey, and Vince is really excited about sustainable and regenerative agriculture. It’s a great fit for all of us.”

She said her focus with this project is on Irvinee & Roberts, but she encourages other vineyard managers to connect with her, tour the plot and create their own project.

During the Western Apicultural Society Conference in Ashland in July, she gave a tour of the project to 20 beekeepers from all over western North America, encouraging them to implement the same project in their communities.

Red-Laird said some bees fly only a few feet or yards from their nest site, and if there aren’t flowers nearby, they won’t survive. It’s also important to have clean soil, because most bee species are solitary ground-nesters, she said.

“Access to untilled, bare (unmulched), chemical-free soil is imperative to their survival,” Red-Laird said.

Next year she plans to plant phacelia and buckwheat between the sunflowers to improve the soil and provide more plant diversity.

Siskiyou Seeds donated the sunflower seeds for the project and a squad of volunteers helped her plant them.

Vidrine helped her spin honey from hives she owns just down the road from the vineyard last weekend, so they’ll soon sell the honey at the Irvinee & Roberts tasting room.

“It truly feels like a community project,” Red-Laird said.

To learn more about Bee Girl and her projects visit beegirl.org.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

A honey bee and a black bee share space on a sunflower at Irvine & Roberts Vineyards in Ashland. Photo by Denise Baratta
"Bee Girl" Sarah Red-Laird and winemaker Vince Vidrine are using sunflowers to attract bees to Irvine & Roberts Vineyards in Ashland in hopes of producing a healthier grape crop. Photo by Denise Baratta