As organic fruit farmers, John and I are very appreciative of our farming partners, the native pollinators and honey bees that do extensive work on our farm. We have tried to develop the farm as a holistic ecosystem and take seriously the charge of being stewards of the land during our tenure here. About seven years ago, we noticed a decline in bumble bee and other native bee populations. Alarmed by this, it prompted us to be more pollinator proactive by planting season-long floral resources, and building nesting and overwintering habitat for the incredible diversity of native pollinators in Vermont. Our efforts seem to be paying off.
As organic farmers, we don’t use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, but what many people don’t know is that even some of the organically-certified pesticides can have deleterious effects on bees and beneficial organisms. That’s why we’ve made a commitment not to use any pesticides (even organically approved) on our crops and land. We’re developing other management techniques to deal with pests and diseases, and change our marketing message or products if the fruit is slightly blemished. While we keep honey bees on the farm for honey, pollination services, and apitherapy, we wanted to ensure that there were enough resources for all and that the honey bees were not outcompeting the native bees. One of the ways we’ve done this is by creating a pollinator sanctuary in our 14 acre back pasture. As we have transitioned away from livestock, we’ve been planting native trees, shrubs, and other pollinator plants and letting milkweed, asters, and goldenrod enjoy full reign in the late summer and fall.
Last year, we received a SARE (Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education) grant to investigate several different types of cover crops such as buckwheat and phacelia to suppress weeds, prevent erosion, build organic matter and also serve as floral resources for pollinators.We’ve been monitoring the various types of pollinators on these cover crops, bloom time, and other factors including beneficial and pest insects. This is adding more tools to our pollinator toolbox.
Floral resources are only part of the story though. Native pollinators, like bumble bees need nesting habitat and overwintering habitat. One of our approaches has been to use a permaculture technique called hugelkultur that involves piling brush, rotting wood, and other waste material covered with soil/compost to create a type of raised bed. John calls our approach “bumblekutur” because these mounds create excellent sites for bumble bee nests and overwintering queens. We also build nest boxes for solitary nesting bees and post these around the farm.
Getting the word out about native pollinators is important for us, so this summer we’re hosting several on-farm pollinator workshops for farmers to educate them about the importance of native pollinators and things they can do on their farms. The workshops are also open to the general public. This past February, we gave a talk on enhancing native pollinators at the NOFA-VT winter conference to over fifty participants, and are slated for a full-day intensive for February 2015. John also has several pollinator walk and talks lined up for this summer through various local organizations.
Probably the most important thing we do on any given day though is to stop, look, and listen to the pollinators that visit our farm. Through the gift of these marvels of nature, we come to better understand and appreciate how interconnected we (humans, plants, and animals) all are in this complex, beautiful, yet often fragile, world.