Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Sustainable Agriculture

The annual Farm to Table Conference held in Memphis at Rhodes College is designed to bring together farmers and those who buy and use their produce. I conducted an introduction to beekeeping session attended by a number of farmers considering adding bee hives for pollination. The farmers conducting other sessions spoke along common themes: sustainable agriculture, quality of produce, food security, and integrated pest management. Sustainable agricultural practices include irrigation water usage and conservation, soil erosion control, and soil moisture retention. Several farmers spoke of the effects of climate change on farming practices. Climate change especially affects water usage and plant variety selection. Certain plant varieties known to be reliable in the past must now be replaced by a diversity of varieties that thrive under new environmental conditions. Climate change also affects planting dates, growing seasons, and harvest dates. To grow high quality produce, the farmers stress testing for soil fertility, acidity, and nutrients. Integrated pest management involves disease and pest prevention and control. Specific crop pests must be identified, and broad-spectrum insecticides should be avoided. Non-chemical controls include selection of resistant plant varieties, crop rotation, removal of diseased plants, and mulching between crop rows.

Robert Hayes, a New Albany, Mississippi blackberry grower, who also manages bees to pollinate his berries, attracts hummingbirds to his farm. Adult hummingbirds feed crop-damaging thirps and aphids to their young birds, a biological pest control. Farmers recognize the need for beneficial insects, particularly honey bees, to pollinate their crops. As well as keeping honey bees, Hayes drills nesting holes in dead trees to make nesting sites for blue orchard bees, effective native pollinators. My presentation to the other farmers explored the reality of maintaining honey bees on today’s farms. It is unfortunate that with the high level of annual colony losses beekeeping can hardly be called sustainable agriculture. The farmers’ awareness of agricultural practices that help and harm bees is important. Cool weather today prevented honey bees from foraging elm trees in full bloom.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Red Maple in Bloom

There are several milestones in the beekeeping year that we follow to give us an indication of what the bees are doing. Some of these milestones are the changes in seasons that we follow on our calendar. We know that queen bees start laying eggs after the winter solstice, December 21. Other milestones involve the bloom of major nectar and pollen sources. I always look for the red maple bloom. Maples and elms bloom in late winter. The weather at this time of the year is often unsettled. If the weather is cold when these trees bloom, the bees don’t fly; and they miss the reward of nectar and pollen. On warm days, bees head to the river bottoms to forage from flowering trees. Today, warm temperatures brought bees out in great numbers. Red maples growing in plains above rivers were covered with honey bees and native bees, including small, brightly colored sweat bees, native bees that forage close to their nest. Honey bees, like the one in today’s photo, travel great distances to river bottoms to fill the pollen baskets on their hind legs with dull yellow-colored red maple pollen. The sudden surge in pollen being brought into the hives is a strong stimulant to the queens to start laying eggs.

Other early season plants in bloom include the skunk cabbage located in damp soils of forest margins and dandelions in pastures and lawns. From the nectar, the bees collect carbohydrates; from the pollen, the bees derive protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals. Having a mixture of available pollens ensures that the bees will have a complete diet to feed their brood. The red maple milestone tells the beekeeper that the first nectar and pollen flows are beginning, and hive activity is ready to start increasing rapidly. As brood production expands, beekeepers need to monitor for hives that are light in weight and supply emergency feeding. If stored honey is depleted, late winter nectar sources may not be sufficient.