Farming for Bees

Farming for Bees

Unlike my first farming for bees experience, planting 25 acres of sunflower and an acre of “bee mix” for the bees was somewhat of a disaster. There were a few reasons: We used a few different new (to us) seeds and new planting equipment that may or may not have been calibrated correctly in a few (large) spots; We had some really stubborn grasses and weeds that have been here a lot longer than the flowers we’re trying to plant; We didn’t nourish the fields; Our winter wheat crop created some weeds. We should have planted oat, not wheat; Roundup is not an option because of the bees; Without enough rain, and high heat life on the farm is miserable; most important we have an overpopulation of deer that are very hungry.

sunflower field on Chesterhaven Beach Farm
Sunflower fields at Chesterhaven Beach Farm

Few farmers think of farming for bees

In years past, we had great success by planting about 12 acres of a pollen-less sunflower. It’s the kind of sunflower that hunters specify for dove hunting fields. Despite the lack of pollen and little nectar that these sunflowers gave to the bees, the bees did very well during the “dearth” when most other plant material stops flowering. The bees produced quite a bit of honey for the fall and it was not-much-thanks to the pollen-less sunflowers. The sunflowers were planted a year after the field was covered in Non-GMO soy. Farmers rotate crops like soy and sunflower to capitalize on what plants give to the soil (soy provides nitrogen) and what plants need from the soil (sunflowers need nitrogen).

Why farm for bees?

In the years that followed, the question became "What makes good bee food" we researched heirloom sunflower that is full of pollen from Johnny's Seeds I called them in December to determine what seeds would be best, created my planting plan and reserved the seeds. You have to early your seeds early because they often sell out. We also created a wildflower seed mix that offers pollen and some nectar to the bees. Our issue with the hungry deer continued. They left the bees a waste-land of half-eaten acres of sunflower, but the bees continued to thrive. Two hives did gangbusters and it was time to get a real education about the plant material on our farm to understand exactly where all this honey is coming from.

farming for bees and handplanting seeds on chesterhaven beach farm
A handful of seed mix on Chesterhaven Beach Farm

In short: Bees collect nectar and bring it to the hive where it becomes wax or honey.

They use honey for energy and pollen for protein and feeding their brood. Bees consume six to eight pounds of nectar to produce a pound of wax. Beeswax is essential to the bee colony. It's secreted from a gland in the same way that we humans sweat, as the wax secretes, the bees "pick it off" of each other and use it to construct the comb where bees raise brood and where they store pollen and surplus honey for the winter.

We may be the only apiary in the country doing this

Jeff Wolinski

We’re on the Chester River, a tributary to the Chesapeake Bay on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In my research, I’ve tried to learn what plants and trees produce the most pollen and nectar. I had the distinct pleasure of spending a few hours with Consulting Ecologist Jeffrey Wolinski. Jeff traveled a couple of hours to visit with us. We walked the farm and learned about the various plants and trees that are indigenous to this area. I also learned about a few invasive plants. All in all, I came out of our meeting with a much better understanding of what we have here on our farm. I also learned what nourishes the bees and what I need to do to plan for their future.

One of Jeff's observations made me feel good. He said, "you may be the only apiary in the country doing this."

This validated all that I've been trying to do with the farm and how we are planting.

It certainly has not been easy.

When farming for bees, first we plan

I knew that I had no interest in growing corn.

Corn seeds are often genetically modified to resist herbicides and insecticides. There’s quite a bit of debate over this and I’m not a scientist and I’m not smart enough to understand this completely. The only thing I know is that I want to be a naturalist, so we need to focus on real old-fashioned Non-GMO crops.

Billy Rhodes planting our fields on chesterhaven beach farm
My friend, farmer Billy planting a field of clover on Chesterhaven Beach Farm

This plan makes us an undesirable farm to work for most of the farmers in our area. Often times farmers will work on contract and plant your land and harvest your crops in order to earn their living. By planting undesirable crops, with unpredictable outcomes (Non-GMO, no spray, no til), well, it makes it difficult to get help on this, and in this our fifth year, we've actually purchased our own tractor so that we can do our own mowing and planting from this point forward.

jeff wolinski and eric farrow in the clover field at the farm

We researched deer resistant plant material that’s good for the bees and not genetically modified in our farming for bees

In more recent years, we ruled out soy, even though the soy seeds we used were not genetically modified. We changed gears and decided to plant seeds that would produce plants high in nectar that would eventually naturalize so that we didn't have to plant every single year. I researched all that would do well on our farm and selected a mix of white, red and yellow clover, buckwheat, mustard and bee balm. We planted all of our fields that are not currently planted with a wildflower mix. We now have over 40 acres of wildflowers and seed mixes that we specifically farm for the bees.

Note: if you plan a mix like this, leave the mustard out. It overtook the field in year 2 and makes for not-so-great honey because it crystallizes quickly. I added it on advice from someone trying to help with diversity and he did not know that it's invasive.

Deer staring at camera on chesterhaven beach farm

Crop Cover equals Cash

As a new farmer, farming for bees, I've been the recipient of great advice from my friend "Farmer Jack," whose family has lived in this area, and has farmed this area for five generations. He taught me about a Cover Crop program in my area that provides farmers like me with attractive grants to plant cover crops on our fields in the fall after summer crops are harvested. I can get up to $50.00 per acre for participating. For those of you interested in this program, you have to sign up between the middle of June and the middle of July, so mark your calendar. It's important to be mindful of the source of your seeds with some of these crops. Many of the more cost-effective crops are genetically modified.

Ask questions. I have yet to participate in a program like this, but if you are on a budget and you want to help bees, check it out!

Jeff taught me to plant oat instead of winter wheat to reduce the number of weeds in the spring. Oats are also a better alternative as wheat is genetically modified. When I asked what kind of oat to plant he replied, “I am not familiar with the exact variety, but I know some oat varieties are more cold tolerant than others. But I don’t think any oat is as cold hardy as winter wheat. I prefer oats to wheat as a cover crop for my meadow seedings since oats are less allelopathic towards the desirable species, but still seem to be allelopathic towards many of the annual weeds. Wheat tends to have a suppressive effect on everything in my opinion.” Then he suggested I speak with the local AG extension agent to see what works best in my region.

Crimson Clover
Crimson Clover over and over

I skipped the ground cover and planted acres and acres of the clover mix.

Next, we must nourish the fields.

We’re sending out soil samples from four sections of each of two large fields to test for N/P/K. Nitrogen is the “N,” it’s what makes the plants green. Phosphate is the “P.” Phosphate nourishes the root system. Potassium is the “K.” Potash aka Potassium makes plants flower. We’ll also be testing the ph of the soil. If any or all of N/P/K or ph are “off,” we’ll be fixing the soil before we plant next year. Probably right before we plant. We added lime to our soil before planting the clover mix at the end of November.

clover field at chesterhaven beach farm

Learning about plants, in Latin.

I learned about plant material, even learned a bit of Latin.

This is the hierarchy of plant groupings:

  • Family
  • Genus
  • Species

Each group above includes one or more of those groups below. Usually, when making a species list, you don’t show the family, but sometimes grouping things by family, then genus and species is useful so you can see the relationships between the various plants.

So, a family is a group of genera, and a genus is a group of species, that are all closely related to each other. Some families have many genera in them, some only have a few or even one if it is a unique group. Same with genera (the plural of genus) – some genera have many species and some only have a few or one. It all depends on the diversity of a particular group of plants. For instance, sweetgum is the only American species in its genus (I think there are a similar species in China), but oaks have a ton of species, many of which are closely related and often interbred.

When referring to plants and trees, the scientific names should be italicized, sometimes they are underlined when italics aren't available, but if they are in italics there is no need for underlining. When using sp. or spp. that should not be italicized.

Following is a plant chart that I put together to highlight the plant material high in nectar on our Maryland Eastern Shore farm.

Pear Grove on Chesterhaven Beach Farm
Life on Chesterhaven Beach Farm Apple and Pear trees and wildflower fields

Trees and Shrubs

Common name Latin name Begin Bloom Month End Bloom Month Monofloral honey Source for honey bees / pounds of honey per acre
American Holly Ilex opaca 4 6 no minor, important in southeastern US
Apple Malus domestica 4 5 No, the nectar is mostly used for spring brood raising and not stored for surplus. minor
Blackberry Rubus spp. 5 6 yes major in some areas
Black Cherry Prunus serotina 4 5 no minor
Sweet Cherry Prunus avium 4 5 No minor
Black Gum Nyssa sylvatica 5 6 yes major source of wild honey in many areas within its range
Black Locust Robinia pseudoacacia 5 6 yes major - 800 - 1200 pounds/; short bloom period of about 10 days
Blueberry Vaccinium corymbosum 5 6 no. Honey amber and of good flavor. minor in most areas. Strong colonies may store 50-90 pounds of surplus from it.
Crab Apple Malus sylvestris;Malus coronaria 3 6 no minor
Pear Pyrus communis 4 5 no minor
Persimmon Diospyros virginiana 5 6 No major
Red Maple Acer rubrum 2 4 no major but temperature usually too cold for bees to fly
Sumac Rhus glabra 6 7 mixed with other honeys major
Swamp Tupelo Nyssa biflora 3 5 yes major
Sweetgum Liquidambar styraciflua 3 5 No major
Willow Salix sp. 2 4 no major but outside temperatures are usually too cold for bees to fly. 100 - 150 pounds honey per acre; 1,500 pounds pollen
Willow Oak Quercus phellos 2 5 No minor

Flowers, Crops, Herbs and Grasses

Common name Latin name Begin Bloom Mo End Bloom Mo Monofloral honey Source for honey bees
False Nettle Boehmeria cylindrica
Aster Aster spp. 8 10 usually mixed with goldenrod major
Blackeyed Susan Rudbeckia hirta 6 8
Canada thistle Cirsium arvense light honey of good quality
Clover Melilotus spp. and Trifoliumspp. 5 8 as clover honey major - up to 500 pounds per acre in a good year
White Sweet Clover Melilotus alba 5 8 yes major up to 200 pounds per hive
Yellow Sweet Clover Melilotus officinalis 5 8 yes major up to 200 pounds per hive
Red Clover Trifolium pratense 6 7 as clover honey major
White Clover Trifolium repens 6 7 as clover honey; The honey is white or nearly white; very mild flavored and does not granulate readily. see Monofloral honey major
Dandelion Taraxicum officinale 4 5 no Honey deep yellow will granulate quickly; mostly consumed by bees doing brood rearing major
Dogbane Apocynum cannabinum 7 8 No. All species are great for honeybees.Nectar is so abundant that it is possible to shake the blossom and actually see the nectar fall major 120 - 250 pounds honey, depending on soil and if good fertilization Asclepias syriaca has the highest honey yield.
Goldenrod Solidago spp. 9 10 can be; Honey golden color of deep amber; marked flavor; granulates quickly major
Joe-Pye weed, Eupatorium spp. 8 9 No minor
Japanese Honeysuckle Lonicera japonica 6 8 No minor
Late Thoroughwort Eupatorium serotinum 8 10 no Average, popular with many kinds of insects
Lavender Lavandula angustifolia 6 9 can be minor
Soybean Glycine soja 7 10 major
St. Johns Wort Hypericum spp. 8 9 no minor
Sunflower Helianthus annuus 6 9 can be minor 30 - 100 pounds/acre
Thyme Thymus pulegioides;Thymus serpyllum 6 7 no minor - 50 - 150 pounds honey/acre
Trumpet Creeper Campsis radicans 6 9 no minor

In our next steps with Jeff, we’re going to determine what plants, shrubs and trees, indigenous to our area and deer resistant produce the most nectar for the bees and we are going to develop a plan for planting next fall and spring.

This year once again, we'll be farming for bees. Last year I spent a good bit of the early summer doing research on the naturally occurring plant material on our farm and wrote about Bees and Farming. We'll be planting about 45 acres in total.

The large fields will be mostly clover today, with a few acres of sunflower in the middle.

Perhaps the deer won't notice?! They seem to have developed quite a taste for Sunflower. In my mind, I am imagining how beautiful a large meadow of wildflowers will look when they start blooming late this spring.

If you're not able to farm for the honeybees, why not plant a pollinator garden instead?

We have much to do in the fields. Aside from quite a few more Lavender plants, we are adding these bee-loved plants: Artichokes, Salvia Gregg, Blackberry, Blueberry, Germander, Creeping, and Flowering Thyme, Swamp Milkweed, Butterfly Weed, Smooth Blue Aster, New England Aster, Partridge Pea, Oxeye Daisy, Lance-leaved Coreopsis, Plain Coreopsis, Showy Tick-trefoil, Purple Coneflower, Wild Blue Lupine, Wild Bergamot, Beardtongue, Blackeyed Susan and Bee Balm. Stay tuned.

Naturally occuring swamp milkweed feed bees and monarch butterflies in the pollinator garden

If you want to help pollinators in your area, grow a pollinator garden this spring. This plant list will help you figure out the best plant material for your area. This list will help you understand the native plants recommended for various purposes.

This booklet outlines farming for bees providing guidelines for native bee habitat on farms.

Each year consulting ecologist Jeff Wolinski visits our farm with a hand-blended collection of seeds that he feels will thrive. He selects seeds he feels will take root and naturalize. Jeff assigns names sections of the farm. He visits a few more times to see that everything is taking root. This has been a years-long process, and though it's like a box of chocolates (we never know what we're going to get.

In farming, it's always about the possibilities.

Farming for Bees Guidelines for Providing Native Bee Habitat on Farms
Native Plants for Bee Forage
Plants Year-Round Forage
Plant lists by region
Bee Gardens Create a Habitat in Your Backyard
Search for wildflower lists by region
National Resources Conservation Service Nectar CorridorsIdentify pollinators
Nectar Sources for Honeybees Trees and shrubs Chart