When you think about what’s needed to help something grow, abundant water, sunshine and nutrient-rich soil probably come to mind. How about honeybees? Though these buzzing insects might seem like nothing but a pest to consumers, they’re actually imperative for growing the fruits and vegetables we eat every day.
“The absolute importance of the honeybee is their ability to pollinate,” says Gerry Whitaker, president of the Alabama Beekeepers Association (ABA). “More than one-third of the food on your table requires pollination, as do the grains required for feeding animals. It’s not just about the honey.”
In short, without honeybees, fruits and vegetables would either be eliminated or greatly reduced in terms of size and quality. Honeybees are needed for plants to reproduce and create more seeds.
“In our own experience of providing hives for pollination to farmers in Southeast Alabama, we’ve found that having bees on the crops yields an increase of at least 30 percent,” Whitaker says.
He adds that each crop has a window of time when it needs to be pollinated. If farmers ensure honeybees and other pollinators are within reach of the blossoms at that time, it will increase productivity, greatly benefiting the farmer.
Honeybees aren’t the only pollinators – others include bats, birds, moths and butterflies – but they are the best. “It doesn’t destroy the blossom, and its sheer number increases the likelihood of sufficient pollination on each plant,” Whitaker says.
Honeybees are also good for their namesake creation – honey – which is another avenue farmers can take for extra income.
“Producing honey from bee colonies on their farms can generate extra income,” says James Tew, beekeeping specialist, Alabama Cooperative Extension System. “Local honey that is attractively bottled is in demand at farmers markets and roadside stands. It has an established reputation for quality and wholesomeness and sells well.”
Bill Mullins, owner of Bill’s Honey Farm in Meridianville and chairman of the Alabama Bee and Honey Producers division of the Alabama Farmers Federation, knows this all too well. He has been beekeeping for 40 years.
“I started in 1975 with two colonies from my brother-in-law, and it sort of got out of hand from there,” he chuckles.
Today, Mullins averages about 300 colonies annually and uses every bit of what the bees make.
“We trap pollen in the spring to sell and use the beeswax to make candles,” Mullins says. “We make somewhere between 70 and 80 configurations for the candles, from a beeswax nativity set to corn, cotton, apples and more. We can make them in different colors and fragrances.”
Of course, Mullins also sells the honey locally out of their on-farm gift shop and at several large retailers, including Earth Fare stores.
Helping to educate the public on the process of making honey as well as the importance of honeybees as pollinators, Mullins invites tour groups on his farm in late fall and early winter.
“We have home school groups, seniors, church groups and ag in the classroom groups,” he says. “They sit down, and we have an orientation class where I talk about bees and the parts of the hive.”
Along with Bill’s Honey Farm, other groups including the ABA are working to spread the word about the benefits and necessity of honeybees.
“We are trying to provide education to the public and the service through individuals of relocating honeybees,” Whitaker says about the efforts of the ABA.
Tew adds that consumers can help by planting flower and vegetable gardens that are attractive to bees as well as supporting present beekeepers, or even becoming one themselves.