Sweet! In Praise Of Our Honeybees

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Michele S. Byers

by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

This past winter was the mildest in recorded history. While this was a plus for many – no plowing, no shoveling! – it wasn’t good for our honeybee colonies.

Instead of staying snug in their hives, expending little energy and consuming little food, the confused honeybees buzzed out into the warm weather, searching for pollen and nectar. Not finding much, they returned to their hives hungry and quickly depleted the stores of honey they needed to survive.

Beekeeper Shaun Ananko, who teaches beekeeping courses for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey and Grow It Green Morristown, says some colonies actually starved.

While lots of folks may be more apprehensive than appreciative toward honeybees, everyone should be concerned about their health and wellbeing.

If there’s one thing sweeter than honey, it’s the service honeybees provide: pollinating the food crops that make New Jersey the Garden State.

New Jersey is a big grower of cranberries, blueberries, melons, pumpkins, squash and other fruits and vegetables. All of these plants need pollinators to carry the pollen from blossom to blossom, ultimately resulting in fruit.

Honeybees, although not native to North America (they’re a European import), have become heavy lifters in pollinating our crops. They’re responsible for about a third of our food production. But honeybees have been under stress in recent years. Colonies have collapsed due to parasitic mites, and researchers believe that pesticides have also taken a toll.

In addition to carrying pollen from flower to flower, honeybees sip nectar from the flowers and use an enzyme within their bodies to produce delicious honey. Ananko says a healthy hive can produce up to 60 pounds of honey in excess of what it needs to store for the winter … that is, barring a winter like the last.

Other crop pollinators include solitary bees like native mason bees and bumblebees, which live in tunnels or burrows and don’t work as part of a collective. If our Jersey tomatoes are famous, it’s bumblebees who should share the credit! Bumblebees vibrate at a certain pitch that is perfect for releasing the tomato flower’s pollen onto their bodies.

How can we help New Jersey’s pollinators thrive?

First, allow wildflowers – known in less enlightened quarters as weeds – to grow freely on your property. Who really wants to spend time weeding, anyway? Let the clover bloom!

Honeybees and other pollinators require a variety of blooming plants throughout the spring, summer and fall to provide a continuous food source, so keep that need for diversity in mind when planting a flower garden.

Finally, find alternatives to pesticides. We now have enough evidence to know that spraying pesticides is harmful to our pollinators.

So bee kind to pollinators! For more information, visit the New Jersey Beekeepers Association website at http://njbeekeepers.org or the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service website at www.nj.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/whip/Pollinators.html.

And if you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

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