To Bee or Not to Bee: Buzz About Vegetables

What would our gardens and tables be like without beans, beets, blackberries, broccoli, cabbage, cantaloupe, cucumbers, eggplants, onions, peppers, pumpkins, raspberries, squash, strawberries, tomatoes, and watermelons—and apples, peaches, pears, plums, and cherries?

Hard to imagine? We’d have few of those vegetables and fruits if we didn’t have insects that pollinate them, insects such as honeybees.

“One-third of the human diet depends on insect pollination,” explained my friend Paul, a Howard County Master Gardener. “And 80% of that pollination is done by honeybees.”

Paul has five colonies. “’Colony’ is the honeybees living together as a unit. ‘Hive’ is the structure. If they were humans, ‘colony’ would be family, and ‘hive’ would be house.”

From mid-April to mid-June, time of major nectar flow, Paul’s 250,000 honeybees fly up to three miles away from their hives to gather nectar. “They have to work hard,” Paul said. “Life is short—about six weeks—for honeybees during the nectar-gathering season.“

Paul predicted that in July he’ll harvest about 180 pounds of honey that he’ll sell to friends and those who hear word of mouth and at the county fair. “Local people with allergies often seek out local honey to build resistance to local pollen,” he added, “but that’s not scientifically proven.”

Paul urged gardeners to buy local honey because most honeybees that pollinate local crops come from the hives of local beekeepers. “For vegetables such as squash and cucumbers, which have separate male and female flowers,” he said, “insect pollinators are essential to carry pollen to the female flowers. No pollinators, no squash. No pollinators, no cucumbers.”

Paul’s gardens include plenty of flowering plants that attract and feed pollinators, such as salvia, goldenrod, and a variety of mints. “The last major nectar flow here in late spring is white clover,” he said, pointing to the clover blooming in his lawn. Chemical-based lawn-care industries unfortunately have declared white clover a weed to be eradicated by broad-leaf herbicides.

As a child in what is now the Czech Republic, Paul was intrigued by a beekeeper with 30 hives and a huge garden. Then in middle school, one of his teachers established a beekeeping club. When he moved to the United States, a co-worker who kept honeybees became allergic to their stings—and Paul bought him out. He read books and other publications on beekeeping and joined the Howard County Beekeepers Association.

Few people keep honeybees today. “In 1967, there were about 3,000 keepers with 35,000 colonies in Maryland,” Paul pointed out. “Now there are about 900, almost all of whom are hobbyists, with about 9,000 colonies.”

Paul encourages gardeners to take up beekeeping both as a fascinating hobby and to help supply pollinators. “If you can’t do that, then find a local beekeeper and buy local honey produced by local honeybees that pollinate local crops, maybe even those in your own garden.”

The amber-colored honey produced by Paul’s honeybees is smooth and sweet with fruity overtones. I know because he gave me a 16-ounce bottle, Vintage 2009.

Now let me figure this out. If I add one teaspoon of Paul’s honey to my oatmeal, that represents the life production of 12 honeybees. The pound bottle represents slightly less than the per-person annual honey consumption in the United States. To gather enough nectar to produce the bottle of honey, Paul’s honeybees flew approximately 55,000 miles and visited about 2 million blossoms, pollinating plants in the process.

Amazing, simply amazing.

Thank you, beekeeper Paul and your nectar-gathering honeybees. You’re more important to our gardens and our tables than most of us may have realized.

2 Comments on “To Bee or Not to Bee: Buzz About Vegetables

  1. Thanks for this post. I love learning about the work of beekeepers. Fortunately, I've actually seen a few bees in my garden this year. A noticeable difference from last year!

  2. I've seen more bumblebees than honeybees in my garden this year, but I have seen a few. I can't recall seeing any honeybee hives in our neighborhood, so maybe we need more beekeepers. Of course, the ones we do see may be coming from “wild” hives.

    I learned a lot from Paul. Perhaps the biggest shock is that white clover is an important part of the nectar-flow for honeybees. Then it dawned on me that we're being trained by the herbicide industry to eradicate white clover because it is a “weed.”

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