“Save your dandelions for the bees this year,” says Dr. Timothy Lawrence, professor emeritus of entomology at WSU and pollinator advisor for Island County’s WSU extension. “Due to our wet and cold weather, there are few, if any dandelions. Things should come around as soon as it warms up and the dandelions start blooming.”
Lawrence recommends allowing dandelions to flower so that our island’s honeybees have an additional source for pollen. While the health of island honeybees is in good shape, he says Whidbey Island in general is a tough place to keep honeybees.
“The cooler weather, the windy, cloudy and rainy conditions, are not conducive for raising honeybees,” Lawrence said. “Our one crop is blackberry and occasionally, alfalfa.”
However, this year does not look good for honeybee pollination and commercial tree fruit growers. Lawrence wrote in “2023 is looking like one of the worst years for honey bees in nearly two decades,” a Feb. 21 article published by WSU.
“They’re having a difficult time with higher losses than normal for commercial beekeepers,” Lawrence said. “Losses are as high as 90 percent of hives. Nearly all commercial beekeepers bring colonies to California each winter to pollinate the almond crop. This year, California was hit by a series of atmospheric rivers. With some 1.6 million acres of almonds needing the recommended two hives per acre and less than three million total hives in the United States, shortages are expected during the almond bloom. Usually, this would not be too big of a problem as beekeepers often purchase bees from Florida to make up for these winter losses. But the Sept. 2022 hurricanes in Florida impacted the honeybee population. This year beekeepers are experiencing much higher-than-normal winter losses and there is an acute shortage of bees for the 2023 almond bloom.”
Lawrence said his big concern for island growers are those dependent on honeybee pollination for cabbage and blueberry crops.
“The far more important story for growers is that in the overall larger scheme of things, farmers depend on commercial pollination for their seed crops,” Lawrence added.
While honeybees that are sent around the country to pollinate commercial crops get the most attention, there are native pollinators, such as bumblebees and mason bees, that can be cultivated by island locals.
Whidbey Island Conservation District’s website posts an article titled “Increase Backyard Bounty with Native Bees.”
“Native bees (especially mason and bumble bees) have proven themselves to be more efficient and effective pollinators than European honey bees,” the article notes. “Native bees are more active in cooler and wetter climates (like ours) and forage earlier or later in the day than honey bees do.”
Andi Kopit earned an MS in pollination biology from Utah State University and worked with USDA bee labs. She lives on the island and assists educators in the Alternative Learning Experience program, a K-8 alternative public school education concept within the South Whidbey School District. With her speciality in pollinator education, she will work with ALE children to create pollinator habitat at the Organic Farm School at the end of April. There is a pollinator garden at the elementary school that she is part of as well.
Speaking about the benefits of native pollinators April 6 at the Organic Farm School in Clinton, Kopit will share tips for creating habitat on our own property.
Regarding bumblebees and crop pollination, the Whidbey Conservation District notes: “The bumble bee for instance, has a unique characteristic – buzz pollination – that helps with cross-pollination of blueberries, tomatoes and peppers. During buzz pollination, the bee shakes her flight muscles while grabbing onto one of pollen-producing stalks inside the flower. This releases a rush of pollen that is attracted to the hairs of the bee making for a quick and efficient way of collecting of pollen. While tomatoes don’t actually need a pollinator to produce fruit, this buzzing activity can increase the size and number of tomatoes.”
Eli Wheat, Ph.D., who practices regenerative farming at Skyroot Farms in Clinton, and is a professor teaching classes on the environment, food production and sustainability programs at UW, talked about cultivation of bees at his farm:
“As a certified organic regenerative farm, we do sometimes keep honey bees on the farm – but our hive died 2 years ago and we haven’t replaced it,” Wheat wrote in an email. “We have a lot of mason bees – and great habitat for them all around the farm. We do cultivate habitat for diverse pollinators on our farm. For 12 years now, we have engaged in the work of restoring habitat along the stretch of a small creek that runs through our farm. We have removed blackberry and planted a diverse constituency of native plants along the banks. We have now an amazing early spring flush of native flowers (not only skunk cabbage) but red flowering currents, twinberry, osoberry and dogwoods. We also intentionally grow flowers to attract pollinators in our fields, we have stopped tilling and delay mowing where bumblebees nest – all of these things encourage pollinators! Even without honey bees – we seem to have great pollination of our tree fruit crops – and of the annual vegetables (like tomatoes) that require pollination. An essential pollinator for these crops are our native bumble bees – and we have lots of them on the farm! BTW, we still have spots in our CSA .”
“Bumblebees like to build nests in fluffy material like old dog fur fluff,” Kopit noted, adding that a university friend, Jonathan Koch, surveyed island pollinators and habitats. He contributed to a resource for the USDA, which includes timing for pollinators, best habitats for them, along with photos of various queens and workers.
This year’s Whidbey Reads, a Sno-Isle Library island-wide event where everyone reads the same book, is “Music of the Bees,” written by Eileen Garvin. Born in eastern Washington, she now lives in Oregon and raises more than 120,000 honeybees. She will speak at two ‘Meet the Author’ events: April 19 from 7 to 8:30 PM at the Oak Harbor Best Western Hotel and Conference Center; and April 20 from 7 to 8:30 PM at Freeland Hall. Whidbey Reads is funded by the Whidbey Community Foundation, the Sno-Isle Libraries Foundation, and Friends of Clinton, Coupeville, Freeland, Langley and Oak Harbor libraries. Check the Sno-Isle Libraries’ website for other bee-related events during the month of April.
A number of businesses raise bees and sell local honey. Notably, Eckholm Farm in Coupeville, manage apiaries on the prairie within Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. Cultivated plants, hedgerows, and weeds offer abundant bee forage for production of local honey.
The Hierophant Meadery in Freeland sells mead and other bee-related products. Their motto is “Protecting Pollinators.”
The Whidbeekeeper features a blog on bee care.
The Whidbey Beekeepers Association, AKA ‘Whidbees,’ has a Facebook page.
Island Apiaries is a small family-run apiary in Freeland, which offers local honey, wax, pollen and propolis. Locals can receive advice for setting up hives, getting bee-related mentoring, and help with swarm removal.
Whidbey Earth & Ocean Month 2023 and Whidbey Reads is hosting a number of bee-related events, including: The Buzz About Bees April 1 at Clinton Community Hall 2-3:30 PM; Bees, Honey & Our Shared Cultural Experience, April 6, 4-5:30 PM at the Oak Harbor Library and April 8, 4-5:30 PM at the Freeland Library; Bring Back the Pollinators, Aprll 10 6-8:30 PM–register online with Sno-Isle Libraries; Mason Bees, Pollination, and Mason Bee Hive Building, April 16, 1-3 PM at Māyā Farm in Oak Harbor. 2520 Busby Road. $20 for adults. Contact Kathy Floyd at firstname.lastname@example.org to register for the event.
WSU publishes a field guide to common Puget Sound pollinators. Visit this link.