The hot days of summer beg of a crisp, cold slice of crimson watermelon—the sugary juices seeping between your fingers and running down your chin. But this refreshing delight would not be possible without a good bit of help from some of our insect friends. Now, I know that there are plenty of pesky bugs bothering us this summer, from the whining mosquitoes that lay in wait at the edge of the field to the stinging wasps that attack during the family picnic. Still, there are many insects whom, without, we would literally be unable to survive.
In order to grow that delectable watermelon, the male and female flowers of the parent plant needed several visits (approximately one visit per seed) from a pollinating insect in order to form a fruit. Insufficient pollination results in stunted, misshapen fruits…or no fruit at all. In fact, one third of all the foods we eat require insect pollination. Wild pollinators, including bumble bees, butterflies, blue orchard bees, hummingbirds, and many more, serve as excellent carriers of pollen as they search for the sweet nectar inside the flowers. But the workhorses of agricultural pollinators are honeybees.
I learned the art and science of beekeeping from an elderly gentleman I met at the Cable Farmer’s Market. We have shared adjacent vending positions for the last 12 years. Now nearly ninety, Mr. Rowe works his hives with his children and grandchildren—spinning honey and stories of dismay at finding that his mother had given away his original few hives while he was serving in WWII. Now, he has traveled the world to attend special conventions for beekeepers and helped start a regional program to mentor new upstarts in the occupation. This same program was how I began my journey keeping bees, about 10 years ago.
It takes a unique soul to embrace the care and keeping of stinging insects. Beautiful, intricate, and socially complex insects, yes…but stinging nonetheless. The sweet and tangy homestead honey harvested each fall serves as compensation for any summer pricks in defense of the hive, but the real payback comes in the garden. On our farm, the honeybees serve as the pollination task force, nearly doubling our harvest of insect-pollinated crops in the first year we kept bees. These include strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, apples, summer and winter squashes, peppers, eggplants, green beans, peas, and even the tomatoes growing in our high tunnels (hoop house greenhouses).
Honeybees visit flowers to collect both nectar and pollen. These two are mixed together by nurse bees to make what is commonly known as “bee bread”—an essential food for the growing larvae in the hive. In the process of collecting these foods in the field, the worker bees stuff pollen onto the sides of their back legs until a fully loaded bee looks like she is wearing bright orange cargo pants. During the dandelion bloom, the whole entrance of the hive will become stained a light yellow from all the pollen-laden bodies busily passing back and forth. Flowers make extra pollen, hoping for just such a fuzzy bee visit, in which some of the pollen powder from one flower will be rubbed off onto the next. This essential process of crop fertilization allows us to enjoy the rich bounty of fruits and vegetables that grace our tables each year.
But you need not become a beekeeper to lend a helping hand to native and honeybee pollinators. Perhaps the best thing anyone can do is to stop spraying pesticides or herbicides that are harmful to bees. This includes the spraying of lawns and flowers, as well as gardens and crops. There are plenty of organic and bee-safe options available on the market today, including neem oil and insecticidal soaps, both of which are harmless to bees. Planting flowers is another excellent option, especially native wildflowers like bee balm, columbines, and white Dutch clover. Planting such a pollinator-friendly flower garden near your vegetable garden can encourage natural pollinators to discover your crops and lend a helping hand—well, wing.
This week, as you take time to discover and observe wild and honeybee pollinators in your area, try taking a sip from this delicious summer recipe I collected while serving as the 2006 Wisconsin Honey Queen.
Creamy Tropical Smoothie
1 cup orange juice
2 cups pineapple chunks, drained
1 banana, coarsely chopped
¼ cup milk
2 Tbs. local honey
4 ice cubes
Combine all ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth and creamy. Serve immediately or chilled.
With your sweet and fruity drink in hand, let us toast the efforts of all those busy pollinators this summer. You call already start to see the fruits of their labor, and we hope to see you down at the farm sometime. We just might have some honeycomb fresh out of the beehives.
Laura Berlage is part owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com