- Chris Keefer
Honey bees fascinate all of us. The hive is a “superorganism” – thousands of insects that function as a single unit, an overwhelmingly female society, ruled by a queen. They dance to communicate. They pollinate the flowers that provide our food. They produce honey, a sweet ingredient that humans have enjoyed for thousands of years.
Honey bees are one of 20,000 different species of bees in the world. They are our most important pollinators. The flowers they are attracted to are food sources for them and, in the process of collecting their meals, they spread pollen to other blossoms. The pollination fertilizes the blooms so they will produce fruits, seeds, vegetables, and other food items. For example, while people don’t use the Arboretum’s crab apple orchard as a source of food, plenty of such winter birds as American robins, cedar waxwings, and the occasional flocks of pine grosbeak certainly do. These birds are part of a vast food chain. While serving as food for larger predators, they also act as controllers of insects. Small animals also feast on crab apples on the branch or drops on the ground. This food web, a web of life, starts with a pollinating bee.
In a Ted Talk (“Why Are Bees Disappearing?”) by Maria Spivak, we are warned that one-third of the world’s crop production depends on the disappearing bees. There are many threats to the honeybee including varroa mites, pesticides, and in large part, a lack of food. Around the world a dependable succession of edible pollen throughout the growing season is being lost. In a mono-crop culture, bees have access to a single short-term source of pollen; when that crop stops flowering, the food source disappears. So a series of flowering trees and plants are a much more sustainable source of food for our honey producing friends. The collection of flowering plants, shrubs, and trees at Landis offers just what honeybees need.
While honey bees and other pollinators have been part of the Landis scene since Fred Lape and his family ran a farm here, it was not until recently that a hive has been re-introduced. Anne Frey, a master beekeeper and former president of the Southern Adirondack Beekeepers Association, maintains a 60-hive apiary and has tutored beekeepers in the area for many years. She was approached by Landis’ Executive Director Fred Breglia about the possibility of establishing a hive or two at the Arboretum as an integral part of the Arboretum’s nature education mission. Having taught several introductory beekeeping courses for the Arboretum, she agreed. According to Anne, the outlook for the Landis honey bees is pretty good. She notes that, although “mites, viruses from mites, and starvation are the main problems here, this past season was very good for nectar and pollen collection. I don’t overharvest. With our area lacking in major agriculture, we hardly have any agricultural chemicals around. The flowers . . . around here are overwhelmingly wildflowers and forest tree blossoms. I think this year there will be two hives, since the first one has grown nicely and can be split.”
Jim Paley, who attended one of Anne’s workshops last year, noted that “it really opened my eyes to the life of honeybees and the sophisticated [way] beehives operate.” He added, “I had no idea that honeybees can be fairly docile. In my ignorance, I thought that when a beekeeper opened a hive, the bees would all attack . . . . Anne showed up with a veil and bare arms, no gloves . . . . [W]hen Anne opened the hive . . . pulled out a rack with hundreds of bees on it, and passed the rack around our group, no one got stung!”
On your next trip to Landis, make note of the honey bees and their work. The gaily painted hive is on a downslope from the greenhouse and the area is fenced off to allow the bees to do their invaluable work undisturbed. Visitors can watch the activity from a distance; binoculars may be helpful to get a closer look. Or for a first-hand experience, register to take one of Anne’s classes, given this year on May 19th and September 8th.