From Lorne Small of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario
Honey bees have been part of our family farm for over one hundred years. My grandfather and his family were accomplished commercial beekeepers. In today’s world he would have been called an ecological farmer or an environmentalist. He believed he had a biblical responsibility to care for all creatures, great and small, and he tried to farm in harmony with all of creation. He strongly believed that there was inter-dependence among all species and people needed to be part of, and contribute to, that balance.
Providing the right honey bee habitat was a planned and deliberate activity. He knew that honey bees needed nectar as an energy source and pollen as a protein source. His plan was to have a fresh food supply for the bees from early spring until fall hibernation. Much of his master plan still exists on our farm today. When bees break dormancy in early spring and before the snow all melts, the farm lawn and orchard is teeming with flowering white snowdrops, followed soon by a carpet of blue scilla, then dandelions, daffodils, tulips, iris and lilac. Then the apple, pear, plum and hazelnut orchard burst into bloom. Every few days throughout the spring months a new flower emerges, bringing a fresh food supply for the bees and their young brood. Our eight acre woodlot is covered with daffodils, originally planted in the 1920’s by my mother when she was a young girl.
Most of grandfather’s plan to feed the bees also had a second purpose. Basswood trees were part of the planned windbreaks because they flower at a unique time of the year for bees. Buckwheat on a small acreage was always part of the plan. Buckwheat was used to kill unwanted perennial grass, then harvested as winter feed grain for chickens. Buckwheat is loved by bees and produces a uniquely flavoured honey. It starts blooming in July and continues for several months until killing frost. Wild apples and choke cherries were encouraged in the fence rows and wind breaks. His hay and pasture crops were a very diverse mix of sweet clover, alsike, red and white clover – all blooming at various times to feed the bees and the livestock. Establishing a sustainable, continuous food supply for bees took careful planning, built on considerable knowledge of flowering plants and an appreciation for bio- diversity and bio-interdependence.
It is quite a challenge for today’s beekeepers to establish an apiary location that will provide the biodiversity necessary for a successful venture. For profitability reasons, commercial agriculture now focuses on a very few species; not many of these species provide an ideal bee habitat. Beekeepers are a skilled, resilient and tenacious group of farmers; they will adjust. Domestic bees have their human agent- the beekeeper – working on their behalf. However, the wild pollinator species are vulnerable and may need help from our broader society if they are to survive and thrive.