Introduction and Background
I am willing to bet that a great percentage of people in the US rarely give honeybees and other pollinators a second thought as to their importance to our nation’s food supply. I am also willing to bet that an even smaller percentage consider honey bees a type of livestock! According to the recently released UF/IFAS publication Minimizing Honey Bee Exposure to Pesticides, however,
The western honey bee is conceivably the most important pollinator in Florida and American agricultural landscapes. The honey bee is credited with approximately 85% of the pollinating activity necessary to supply about one-quarter to one-third of the nation’s food supply. Over 50 major crops in the United States and at least 13 in Florida either depend on honey bees for pollination or produce more abundantly when honey bees are plentiful. Rental of honey bee colonies for pollination purposes is a highly demanded service and a viable component of commercial beekeeping and agriculture. Bee colonies are moved extensively across the country for use in multiple crops every year. There are also over 3,000 registered beekeepers in Florida, managing a total of more than 400,000 honey bee colonies and producing between 10–20 million pounds of honey annually.
Additionally, in 2014, the President of the United States signed a n official Memorandum entitled: Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators which outlines specific steps needed to increase and improve pollinator habitat. These steps are geared towards protecting and restoring populations of not only honey bees, but native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies all of which are vital to our nation’s economy, food production, and environmental health.
Once thought of as a minor industry, limited to a few major producers, the beekeeping industry is growing by leaps and bounds in Florida. David Westervelt, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Bureau of Plant and Apiary Inspection Assistant Chief, recently stated that his office registers an average of 15-20 new beekeepers each week. Additionally, the recent USDA Honey Production Report stated 2014 was a good year for US beekeepers with both record high prices and also an increase in total production.
Yet, even with this growth in the beekeeping industry, the national “herd” of beehives is still almost half of what it was in 1970. Today, beekeepers face many challenges from a myriad of pests, diseases, and environmental threats against which they must constantly manage to keep from losing their hives.
Bee Pasture Considerations
Whether or not you are a beekeeper, you can help increase the abundance and health of honey bees and native pollinators by creating nectar and pollen rich bee pastures. These pastures can be filled with annual plants, which grow from seed each year, perennial plants, which return and spread on their own each year, various flowering shrubs and trees, or any mixture of above. You can also manage existing natural areas and woodlands by employing recommended prescribed fire regimes, non-native invasive plant control, and other practices to encourage a diversity of native pollinator plants.
The ideal bee pasture is one in which flowers are blooming as continuously as possible throughout the year. Research shows bees thrive best in open sunny pastures that are as large as possible, with a diversity of plants types. While flowering shrubs along woodland edges are well used by bees, a bee pasture that is allowed to become dominated by trees and shade will become less attractive to bees. A dedicated, open, sunny pasture having nectar and pollen plant diversity is best.
Just as with any field you intend to plant, the first step is to collect a soil sample for analysis of existing nutrients and pH levels. (For more information on soil samples read the article Soil Test First!) Know your objectives and research the types of plants to use, as well as the costs of planting, purchasing seed, cultivating, weed management, and fertilizing.
Pollinator Plant Types
There are many plants that provide nutritious nectar and pollen for north Florida’s pollinators. Some examples of plants which are good pollinator food sources are maple trees, redbuds, poplars, gallberries, blackberries, palmettos, swamp ti-ti, partridge pea, mint, thistles, goldenrod, asters, tickseeds, sunflowers, squash, melons, and clovers. If you purchase a bee pasture blend from a seed company, make sure it is suited for growing in north Florida and does not contain noxious, invasive, weedy plant species. The Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council maintains a listing of documented invasive plants here: List of Invasive Plant Species.
Summary and Resources
The business, biology, and botany of pollination is fascinating and also critical to sustainable and diverse food production in Florida and the United States. Consider turning your fallow agricultural lands or backyards into productive bee pasture and reap a sweet harvest.
For more information on this topic and beekeeping please see the resources below: