by Elisabeth Marshall
Bees have been on my mind more than ever this growing year because we, and many others on the island, have had such poor fruit set — which I attribute to our unprecedented cold and wet spring. I decided to talk about this with my friend, Jo Ann Philpot, an island apiarist and a font of information on all things bee. She told me that island beekeepers lost nearly all their hives this winter — a virtual wipeout — and that they, too, blame the weather.
She explained that, with the winter solstice passed, bees begin building their pollen supplies, having consumed most of last year’s stores. When the weather was unusually cold this spring, the bees exhausted themselves trying to keep the hive warm enough for the queen to survive. The cold and the dearth of pollen defeated them and the queens died, which spelled certain death for the entire hive. The early blooming orchard trees went unpollinated, though later blooming and fruiting varieties of apples and our raspberries have a normal fruit set.
One thing led to another, and I found myself tumbling down a rabbit hole of bee lore and discovery. Domestic honeybees are increasingly under threat from climate change, decreased genetic diversity, lax disease and pest protection, and widespread pesticide use. That leaves wild honeybees, bumblebees, and mason bees as a crucial bulwark in the present pollination crises we are experiencing.
Wild honeybees nest in tree cavities, often high off the ground. They regularly swarm to start new nests, unlike domestic bees which are prevented from swarming by the beekeeper in order to keep them in their managed colonies. The regular swarming and nest renewal of wild bees ensures their continued genetic diversity and rigor. This genetic diversity presumably extends to the bees’ microbiota and contributes to bees’ ability to withstand assaults to their immune defenses.
Microbiota are the collective microorganisms that may be commensal, symbiotic or pathogenic found in and on all multicellular organisms. Wild bees are not fed sugar water or pollen patties, nor treated for mites, as are domesticated bees — actions that can also negatively affect the bees’ microbiota. It has been shown that glyphosate perturbs the gut microbiota of honeybees, which contributes to decreased resistance to pathogens and is believed to result in increased bee mortality. We know very little about the constellations of bees’ microbiota.
Seeking solace after hearing the bees’ dire winter’s tale, I was encouraged by Natural Beekeeping Trust’s riveting video of a hive made from a wooden pallet filling with wild bees: https://www.naturalbeekeepingtrust.org/post/the-lockdown-pallet-hive. This is now on my ever-expanding projects/must have list.
Mason bees, which are solitary, nest in or close to the ground (often using mud as masonry — thus their name), do not make hives, can withstand substantially lower temperatures than honeybees, and don’t suffer the onerous domestic duties borne by captive honeybee colonies. They were the likely posse who rode to the rescue of our later-blooming fruit trees, aided by the ever trusty bumblebees and wild honeybees.
Bumblebees are social and make hives like honeybees, but these hives are annual and die at summer’s end. The mated bumblebee queens retire to hibernate until the following spring when they will begin laying eggs for female worker bees, followed by eggs for male drones. Their hives are very small and do not produce much honey — only enough nectar to last through a few days of bad weather. Very early blooming trees and shrubs, like fruit trees, pussy willows, and serviceberry are especially important food sources to nourish the new queens as they start their colonies. This year the constant rain and historic cold temperatures delayed or destroyed the early pollen — leaving the bees hungry, perhaps queenless, and the trees fruitless.
Alarmingly, more than one quarter of North American bumblebees are at risk for extinction.
Jo Ann then revealed to me the advent of Darwinian Beekeeping, aka Natural Beekeeping, Apicentric Beekeeping, and Bee-Friendly Beekeeping. She suggested I familiarize myself with the work of Thomas Seeley, Horace White professor in biology, Cornell University. His scientific work focuses on the phenomenon of swarm intelligence, the collective intelligence and natural lives of honeybees. His book, “Honeybee Democracy” is at the top of my reading list. I now have a new, absorbing interest that will expand my appreciation and understanding of bees, fruit, honey, and pollination and heighten the pleasure I take in our farm.
Very recently, we received notice of the Local Food System Infrastructure Grant “available to farmers, ranchers, food processors, food distributors, and other small businesses and organizations that aggregate, process, manufacture, transport, store or sell foods within that have been grown, caught, or raised in Washington state for Washington consumers.”
We applied quickly for a long-planned project that needed funding for fruition. Though the wording of the announcement might induce one to believe these grants are designed for small businesses or farms, we know of very substantial concerns which have applied for these grants. We, like virtually all small farms, lack a staff position or department dedicated to procuring grant funding — though, for our size of farm, those funds are critical for growth and development. Small farms have no well-paid lobbyists to seek political support for our needs so we “enjoy” a largely subsidy-free existence.
Whatcom County has experienced a steady decline in acreage devoted to agriculture over the last decade with more and more formerly rural land being used for residential development. However, the number of small farms locally has increased, and, of those, farms owned by women and immigrants have also increased. Direct-to-consumer sales have burgeoned along with the increase in farmers’ markets statewide. This attests to a heightened recognition of food and its importance in all our lives — and increased interest in where and how it is produced and by whom.
Please keep small farmers and bees foremost in your thoughts.
Salted Honey Caramel Sauce
Makes one pint
½ cup honey
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1 cup cream
4 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon vanilla
• Mix the honey, brown sugar, salt, cream and butter in a saucepan over medium heat.
• Cook while stirring occasionally and watching to make sure it doesn’t boil over for about 6 minutes — or until it is thickened. Remove from heat, add vanilla, and cook another minute or so.
• It will thicken more when it cools. Let cool slightly and then pour into a glass jar and refrigerate.
• Bake some sweet, ripe peaches, halved and pitted, until tender at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
• Let cool to room temperature before serving in bowls with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, the honey caramel sauce and toasted, sliced almonds.
• Bee happy.
Elisabeth Marshall and her family have lived in Whatcom County for 40 years. They grow fruit, vegetables, cut flowers, eggs, sea salt, and peonies on their Full Bloom Farm. They sell their goods at their farm stand, which is open from April through December and at the Lummi Island Farmers Market.