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Farmer John: Hard-working honeybees need a helping hand

A honeybee visits buckwheat at Farmer John Wilson’s former farm. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]

BY J.D. WILSON

VIRGINIA BEACH — All hail the mighty, tiny, flying teddy bear of the insect world – the honey bee. I love them because, well, I have to admit I really love honey. I have a sweet tooth a mile long. I’ve tasted honey from Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Mexico and Egypt. I started speaking Italian after eating the honey from Firenze.

The flavor is very unique from each place. The qualities of honey are affected by several factors. Weather is first.

Bees forage more and make more honey when the days are warm, the nights are cool and there is enough water in the soil – and, of course, what is blooming in their vicinity.

I learned this sort of thing from my first beekeeping mentor, C.E. Harris. He is a master beekeeper and a great guy to hang out with. He knows lots of stuff about lots of stuff.

He once told me that you used to be able to be a “beehaver.” It would take a little maintenance and then collect your reward. You didn’t need to be an expert.

Now you really have to learn a lot to keep them alive. You need a mentor. There are two prominent clubs I know of – the Tidewater Beekeepers Association and The Beekeepers Guild of Southeast Virginia – that offer lots of educational opportunities and festivals. The state of Virginia has also been pro-active in supporting beekeepers and spreading information, and there are also opportunities through local 4-H programs for young people.

It makes sense for people who care about farming and gardening to take an interest in what helps bees thrive because bees are mighty good at returning the favor. And why else should we focus on the bees? So there is more honey, of course.

One of the things I learned is that bees prefer to forage out two miles from the hive, but they can travel as far as five miles if they must. Like everything else in nature, they like diversity.

My favorite honey comes from a wide range of plants all mixed together. It’s like you are tasting the beauty of all the flowers out there. Bees are more healthy with diversity surronding them. We don’t eat only one thing, and neither do they.

In the insect world, bees are the canary in the coalmine. They act as an indicator species, an animal or plant that tells us about a particular habitat. The problems bees face are an indication of the degradation of the environment. Loss of habitat and forage plants and increases of toxic chemicals are two of those factors. While some will argue that chemical use is not to blame, you don’t see species die without those factors.

In fact, indigenous species of other insects are in decline, too, and that is a problem. Insects do many jobs we don’t pay attention to. Those who eat them down the line will be out of food without them. It is possible and fairly quick to bring them back. I have seen it.

When I was at my last farm, Old Dominion University researchers and students studied both honeybees and native pollinators, such as mason bees, there. They discovered that my cultural practices and insect habitat plantings meant I had plenty of pollinators to do the job. The latter added up to one and a half acres total surrounding the farm.

So even if all the honeybees died, I would have pollination. This requires thought, planning and work to take care of the whole farm ecosystem. It was worth the effort.

There are currently efforts in other countries to address this problems. It was reported in The Telegraph that France became the first country in the European Union to ban all five pesticides killing the bees. By just focusing on the bees and making proactive changes, everything else in those habitats will be positively affected because everything is interconnected.

We are dependent on the whole being healthy. And honeybees are the most efficient and effective pollinators out there.

We can help those folks who are helping bees survive and thrive by making a donation to the bee clubs mentioned earlier and simply by buying their honey and local honey. We can plant more bee-friendly plants – flowers, trees and shrubs. Ask the seller for only plants which weren’t already sprayed in the greenhouse. And don’t spray your plants with toxic chemicals.

There are organic solutions. I will be hosting some classes later in the spring. Details to follow. This is a little selfish, I know, but I want honey in my future. I also want the fruits and vegetables that are dependent on being pollinated. Our furry little friend could use a hand while it goes about its valuable work.


For more information about beekeeping, find the Tidewater Beekeepers Association online via tidewaterbeekeepers.net or the Beekeepers Guild of Southeast Virginia online via beekeepersguild.org. The guild has links to a variety of online resources at its site.


Wilson, a farmer and consultant who lives in Sigma, writes about sustainable agriculture for The Independent News. Reach him via farmerjohnnewearth@yahoo.com.


© 2019 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

The Independent News

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