by Emily Leeson
Roger Henry is out in the fields of the Harrington Research Centre north of Charlottetown on a day in late July. The wind is a bit rough, but he’s got a good degree of protection standing among the Yellow blossom sweet clover he’s growing. It’s just about at seven feet tall now.
This cover crop, which is situated in the certified organic section of the farm, is working two jobs this season. While it’s doing its regular nine-to-five job of rejuvenating and renovating the soil, adding nutrients, and boosting the fertility, it’s also enhancing the diet of the local honeybees.
Henry is a research technician with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada who is usually busy with work related to the soil. With his most recent project though, he’s been collaborating with the provincial apiarist, Chris Jordan, and the P.E.I. Beekeepers Association to produce what they are calling a “bee pasture.”
“A pasture really just means a forage food source for an animal,” explained Henry. “In this case we’re looking at crops that generate pollen – and nectar – but pollen is the key one because it’s used to grow the (bee) larvae.”
He’s hoping to help boost the local bee population by encouraging farmers to use the cover crops that bees love the most. Although the bee pasture is only in the demonstration stage of research, Henry is already seeing the multifaceted potential of this collaborative effort. It turns out that the cover crops bees love the most are also the ones that work to control wireworm infestations.
In recent months, the plight of bees and beekeepers in Atlantic Canada hasn’t been good. Plummeting prices for blueberries last season had many predicting less work and lower prices for pollination services this year. For those in honey production, the threat of Small hive beetle looms. In mid-June, the invasive beetle was discovered in New Brunswick among hives brought in from Ontario. That was the first reported appearance of the pest in the province. Small hive beetles have the capacity to destroy hives and spoil honey, weakening the colony as they do so.
Although Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have expansion funding programs available to beekeepers to build up the local bee population in hopes of eventually meeting the crop pollination requirements within the provinces, imports of bees from other areas are still occurring, bringing with them a continued threat of infestation. There couldn’t be a better time to research how to keep local bees happy, healthy, and increasing in number.
While P.E.I.’s nearly 90,000 acres of fields seeded with potatoes bode well for business, they don’t necessarily feed the bees. Other crops on the Island aren’t much better.
“If you look around conventional agricultural, the crops that they are growing – oats, barley, wheat, soybeans, potatoes – very few of these crops have flowers,” said Henry. “The potato does have a flower, though some varieties hardly even have a flower. All those crops have basically no food for bees.”
In finding the right cover crops to satiate the insects, Henry has been offering them a taste-tasting experiment.
“We set up a bunch of cover crops that we know have flowers, and then we look to see how much the bees feed off them,” he explained. “We grew known bee-loving crops as well as some of unknowns. If I have two crops side by side and one is full of bees and one has no bees, you pretty well know which one is their preference.”
He’s also measuring the honey production by way of a hive set on a scale that he reads and records on a weekly basis.
As it turns out, among other options, the bees are loving the Brown mustard and buckwheat. Both of those crops are part of the prescribed course of action for dealing with wireworm infestation, an increasingly common problem in the Atlantic region.
The glucosinolates found in both of those plants activate a natural defence mechanism when threatened by the pest. As the wireworms munch away on the roots, a natural pesticide is released. For wireworm control, it’s recommended that cover crops be planted in June and August.
Henry sees a happy coincidence in that timing for the cycle of bee nutrition as well.
“If we plant Brown mustard in August, then we can have flowers in the end of October, and by the end of October there’s not a lot of flowers around,” he said. “We could possibly extend the productive bee season just by using these cover crops. Thereby, we think we could easily double the honey production in a hive.”
Henry is clearly keen to be part of an initiative that’s aimed at helping out the bees. He’d like to see the focus on better bee nutrition result in a better economy for local beekeepers.
“If you can get money for pollination and still get 150 pounds of honey per hive, then you could have a really, really profitable industry rather than one that’s just basically breaking even,” he said.
by Emily Leeson