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Parson: Honey, thank you

Have you thanked a honey bee lately? They provide pollination for a majority of our food crops. Do they want a “Thank You” card? No. Do they want you to take them out to lunch to show your thanks? Not exactly. But leaving a nice patch of clover in your yard is a start. Like all animals, honeybees need safe food, water, and shelter. And you can help.

You can ‘thank’ a bee by providing food-they need the nectar of 10,000 flowers just to make a teaspoon of honey. Flowering plants in your garden beds, shrubs, and trees provide great nectar sources for the honeybee. Don’t be daunted by the 10,000 flowers. Just look at a clover bloom sometime and you will see that each blossom is made up of many individual flowers. Even a moderate patch will help.

Trees are an important source of nectar. At the Oxford farm, we have a huge old red maple that blooms in February. It was satisfying to look up at the many blooms covered by honeybees, predatory wasps, native pollinators, and other beneficial insects. While a patch of clover is like a ranch-house development, the red maple is like a high-rise complex of flowers.

Tree blooms are so important in our area that the Tulip Poplar can be the dominant nectar our bees use to produce honey. The honey from these poplars has an orange tint that you may notice in local honeys. If you keep watch like I do, you know that the bloom stage for these native trees is over and they are now forming seeds. Sometime in June the ‘honey flow’ period is over in our area. After that, the bees still make honey but not enough for us to collect.

Aside from planting nectar-producing plants and trees, you can also make your flowering plants safe for honeybees. This means not using insecticides when your plants are in bloom. Bees visit plants looking for food, and that means flowers. If you dust your flowering plants with insecticide, the bees may die right away or they may bring that insecticide back to the hive. If you choose to use insecticides, liquids that dry onto the plant surface are better than dusts that will stick to the bee’s many hairs.

It turns out that providing food for honeybees has other advantages (aside from the obvious beauty of flowering plants). The same plants that encourage honey bees also encourage other pollinators and beneficial insects. Native pollinators and beneficial insects often live solitary lives and rear their young in cavities. They dig small holes in the ground, drill into hollow stems of plants like blackberry, and even  take up residence in the unused bolt holes of old tractors.

Have you ever noticed a bolt hole on your mower or other outdoor equipment inexplicably filled with mud? If you were to look behind the mud, you would likely find the larvae of a beneficial insect. In fact, you can make a block with 3/8” holes to attract these ‘good bugs’ to your yard. Check out for more information about supporting our native pollinators.

Back to the bees… This time of year, honeybees need water. As the weather heats up, they use water to cool their hive using the principal of evaporative cooling. As one beekeeper taught me, they like water that has a taste and a smell. That means they go for everything from puddles after rain to swimming pools. Once they find a water source, many bees will visit until the water runs out. If you want to provide water for bees, make sure they can get out because they don’t swim. Gravel in a birdbath will give them something to use to climb out, as will pieces of grass sticking out of a bucket. If you do set out water for your bees, make sure it doesn’t dry out.

Once you have plenty of food and water for bees, shelter is the only thing missing. That’s where beekeepers come in. The greatest thing I can do as a beekeeper is provide safe housing for my bees.

About ten years ago I decided to take up beekeeping. I was at Gaia Gardens in Decatur and needed pollination services. I also happened to have empty bee equipment from the previous farmer. I cleaned up those boxes, read up on beekeeping, found friends who knew something about bees, and met P.N. Williams in Forest Park.

Mr. Williams is a master beekeeper who sold supplies and, in the spring, nucleus hives for new beekeepers to get started. I procured all the goods needed to get the hives started and ordered my ‘nuc’, heeding every bit of advice that P.N. was willing to give.

When the evening came, I got the call to meet up in his backyard to get my ‘nuc’ at dusk. He screened the front of the box and strapped the top closed. I took it back to the farm and set it right where I wanted my hive to be. It took courage that evening to remove the screen and let the bees out, but looking back that was the easy part!

The next day I met up with a friend who had taken a beekeeping class and together we muddled through transferring frames from the ‘nuc’ to my full-size hive box. I still clearly remember the first frame of bees I ever pulled from the box. Part of me wanted to drop it and get far, far away, but I had a job to do. It’s still exciting to pull a frame loaded with bees, but it no longer evokes the fear I had on that first day. It turns out that if you handle bees gently, they will be very gentle to you.

Fast forward through beginners luck, colony collapse disorder, moving to South Carolina and back, and you find me keeping bees here at the Oxford College Farm. One of our hives is from a ‘nuc’ prepared at Buster’s Bees in McDonough. He took over from P.N. Williams and sells supplies as well as bees. The rest of our hives came from swarms caught on campus and at the farm.

It’s been a good spring for the bees. Plenty of moisture without too many rainy days means the nectar flow has stayed mostly strong. Early warmth seemed to get them started in good time and with any luck we will be able to pull some honey off soon.

In other farm news, it’s market season. You can find us at the Oxford Farmers’ market on the green between the USPS and City Hall on Thursdays from 3-6pm. Shannon’s Greenhouses usually joins us to sell plants, and anyone raising food in Newton or the surrounding counties can join us by registering with the City of Oxford. We are also at the Monroe Farmers’ Market on Saturdays from 8:30am-12:30pm on Court Street in Monroe. The market accepts SNAP benefits and will even double your money using their EBT system!