This began as a simple effort. I’m a long-time organic kitchen gardener that has thought for years that it would be great to add a honey-bee hive to my back yard. A kitchen gardener is someone that grows the easy-to-grow seasonal foods found at most farmer’s markets: lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, beans, etc..
For nearly two decades, the highlight of my garden has been growing outstanding tasting heirloom tomatoes. I plant a half-dozen varieties to harvest great tasting tomatoes from late July onward and try to keep enjoying them through October. After that, its back to store-bought cardboard-tasting tomatoes that just aren’t the same.
This April(2016), I installed my first beehive in a good spot behind the garden near my raspberry patch. After getting the new honeybee hive underway and growing towards an estimated 50,000 bees this summer, my next thoughts were “what can I add to my yard/garden that will help the honeybee colony thrive”. When those thoughts were in my head, I envisioned planting maybe 20 to 30 square feet of some well chosen flowers to boost the honeybees foraging success. At least that’s what I thought I needed!
As a long-time organic gardener, my garden was already rich in pollinators and beneficial insects before the honeybees arrived. Turning on-line for research, I discovered the publications of the Xerces society, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving invertibrates (insects). This organization has been working to conserve both monarch butterflies and bees for a number of years. They have some well-researched publications and I began to study them in my quest to enhance my honeybees foraging.
Then I read the document “Managing Alternative Pollinators” and in the section labelled Pollinator Botany discovered that honeybees physically cannot pollinate my treasured heirloom tomatoes and peppers. Honeybee tongues are too short to access the pollen. Bumblebees not only have longer tongues, they use their larger size to resonate the flower anther. I copied the precise words here and emphasized the part about tomato blossoms by bolding.
Other flowers, particularly in the family Solenaceae, which includes tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, do not release pollen from the anther unless the anther is sonicated, or vibrated very quickly. Bumble bees specialize in sonicating, or buzz pollination, of tomato flowers. They grab the flower in their mandibles and vibrate their flight muscles, releasing the pollen. Honey bees, leafcutter bees, and mason bees are not able to buzz-pollinate so you will rarely, if ever, see these bees on tomatoes.”.
Buzz-polination is not a word you hear everyday. But you can hear it if you watch this You-Tube video.
I became aware for the first time, that my delicious heirloom tomatoes are dependent upon Bumblebees, not Honeybees. On reflection, I had historically observed many of the larger, more-noticeable bumblebees in my garden, but never realized why.
In the document titled “Conserving Bumble Bees”, when I read section 2.6 about competition between bumblebees and honeybees, I began to think that I might have made a mistake introducing a honeybee hive. I realized that the sheer volume of new honeybees growing by thousands of honeybees each week for the entire summer would out-compete and might drive away the bumblebees that up to now have pollinated my heirloom tomatoes each summer.
Because of the new bee hive, the native pollinators will be competing with a giant pollen and nectar honeybee vacuum cleaner! This might force my native pollinators to range further for food. Where they find new food, they may nest there as well. I became concerned that this large volume of new honeybees would degrade the local habitat of the the native bees, bumblebees, and other beneficial insects that I’m currently grateful to and historically dependent upon.
Unexpectedly, I began to question if I was degrading rather than enhancing my previously well-pollinated vegetable garden habitat. Were my new honeybees likely to force the local bumblebees to look someplace other than my garden for rich habitat?
The task description was no longer one of planting the right flowers to feed my new honeybees. The task that lies ahead is one of figuring out how to keep the non-honeybees around and reasonably well-fed. How can I squeeze 50,000 more bees into my existing ecosystem without impoverishing and driving away the native insects that are in my garden? In particular, how can I keep the current population of local bumblebees, one of the few pollinators capable of successfully buzz-pollinating my heirloom tomato blossoms, happy and well fed.
What began as a quest to feed honeybees, has turned into a race to make sure that every other type of bee, but bumblebees in particular are well fed and feel at home sharing my local territory with honeybees. Needless to say, this introductory discussion leads to a work in progress.
End of 2016 update: During 2016, my honeybees produced roughly 80 to 100 pounds of honey. According to the National Honey Board, and industry funded education group appointed by the US Secretary of Agriculture, it takes two million visits to a flower by bees to produce one pound of honey. This means my bees made approximately 200 million flower visits, each time returning to the hive with nectar or pollen to be made into honey. One way or another, that’s a lot of flowers! Even if one flower could provide enough nectar and pollen for 200 bee harvests, that would still require 1 million flowers be available. I don’t entertain any hopes of growing 1 million flowers in my back yard. This helps me understand why honeybees have a 3 mile foraging range. It takes some space to grow that many flowers.
During the summer, despite the presence of 30,000 to 50,000 honeybees in the hive, I found relatively few honeybees in my vegetable garden. They were organized enough to bee off to richer pickings of more concentrated sources of nectar and pollen in the surrounding woodlands and wetlands near my home. (containing native plants, and the now ubiquitous invasive purple loosestrife) I did however notice, several bee varieties including bumblebees as well as predatory wasps and some flies that looked like bees in my garden. I would guess that my vegetable garden continued to attract the same local pollinators it always has. I would also surmise that considering the thousands of honeybees in my hive, most of the time, there were simply too few flowers blooming in my vegetable garden for them to bother with.
The proof-in-the-pudding will occur next spring in how many bumblebees emerge and become active.