Tiny Farmer Makes A Honey Of A Crop


April 17, 1991|By Marie V. Forbes

There's a tiny farmer at work in gardens, orchards and fields all over Carroll County.

The worker attracts little notice, but the job must be done or spring's proliferating blossoms would not exist, fields of clover would produce no seed and holly trees and goldenrod and purple aster would no longer reproduce.

The tiny farmer is, of course, the bee, transporter of pollen andnectar, propagator of practically every species of flowering plant.

Wayne Straight, past vice president of the Carroll County Beekeepers Association, has devoted years to studying this omnipresent insect. In the process, he has become a self-taught botanist, entomologist -- and apiarist, as beekeepers are known.

"Unlike the bumblebee and the wasp, the honeybee is not a native of North America," Straight says. "American Indians called them the 'White Man's Fly.'"

At this time of year, Straight says, bees are in their element, buzzing happily and greedily from apple blossoms to willows to dandelions with special stops on the way for a tasty nip of skunk cabbage blossoms, one of their favorite foods.

In midsummer, the pickings will be slimmer.

"Here in the Piedmont, we lack a lot of summer-blooming plants from which bees can take honey. Milkweed blooms then, but it evolved in such a way that the pollen structure is too tough for honeybees and can actually trap and kill them."

Fall again sees a bee bonanza with white winter asters, purple asters and goldenrod to provide a feast.

"Without bees, agriculture suffers greatly," Straight says."(In an experiment), onions raised without honeybees produced no seeds at all for planting."

Among crops that bees help to produce aresweet corn, lima beans, sunflowers, some soybeans, melons, cucumbers, blueberries, apples, pears, peaches and cherries.

While bumblebees and wasps flit helter-skelter, attracted by whatever blossom happens to tempt their palate, domesticated bees such as the type Straightcultivates prefer to feed on one variety of plant at a time.

Three factors seem to determine how bees are attracted to blossoms.

First is color; bees see in ultraviolet. What appears to human sight tobe a pure white blossom may be perceived by a bee as having invitingcolor patterns.

The second attraction is sugar content. Crown vetch, for instance, although a relative of clover which bees find attractive, is largely ignored because its sugar content is too low.

The third thing bees look for is accessibility; they will choose a variety of plants that can be found in abundance close to their hive.

Although bees reproduce prolifically, two species of mites -- varroa and tracheal -- have infected many domestic hives. During the winter season, beekeepers treat their swarms with menthol, although the treatment must be stopped before bees begin to produce honey.

Also of concern to beekeepers is the highly aggressive Africanus strain of wild bees, migrating northward from Texas.

A swarm intermixed with the Africanus strain is much more territorial and produces considerably less honey. However, geneticists are working to develop a cross between African bees and domestic bees that will be milder in temperament while still producing large quantities of honey.

Straight says he entered beekeeping in a rather round-about fashion: the 45-year-oldgovernment employee originally allowed the driver of his van pool toput a hive on his property in order to overcome his own fear of bees. When presented with beekeeping equipment and a swarm by his father-in-law, he soon became a beekeeping enthusiast.

Straight advises those wishing to attract bees to their property to plant a variety of herbs, as bees are especially fond of herbal blossoms.

"They like mint, hyssop, thyme and are especially fond of Persian catnip, which also makes an attractive border plant," he says.

Raspberries, blackberries and strawberries also attract bees, as do Dutch, yellow and white clovers.

The Carroll County Beekeepers Association meets on the third Wednesday of each month at Hashawha Environmental Appreciation Center. The meetings, open to the public, help educate members insuch topics as honey cooking, new laws regulating beekeeping and newtechniques of honey production.

An annual honey fest at Hashawha and exhibits at various county functions and the state fair at Timonium are among the group's other activities.

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