Underneath a towering canopy of American chestnut trees, bees prosper among the rich variety of blooming plants in Lesesne State Forest.
By spring, the pollinators feed on nectar from willows, maples and sassafras. Throughout June, the chestnuts bloom. By fall, goldenrod and wingstem both satisfy bee needs with few obstacles. A fence protects beehives from the primary threat of bears in a natural habitat, where neither herbicides nor mowing eliminates their native food sources.
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In an interesting partnership, the Virginia Department of Forestry has collaborated with Melissae, a pollinator-promoting nonprofit, to test the compatibility of honey production with public land management. The project offers a public space to correlate thriving bee populations with environmental health, encourage the public to reestablish natural habitats and invigorate the honey industry in Virginia, where people may not consider a stand of trees a place to produce it.
“As a forester, this has been a revelation to me just how important trees are to honeybees and by extension to other pollinators,” says Jerre Creighton, research program manager with the Virginia Department of Forestry. “I had always associated that with wildflower meadows.”
Hives Thrive on State Land
Keswick-area beekeeper Diego DeCorte of Melissae first installed hives in Lesesne State Forest in 2017, just two years ahead of the donated property’s 50th anniversary of American chestnut restoration research. In response to the success in this 422-acre Nelson County forest, Melissae will add more hives in 2020, bringing the total to 15.
Meanwhile, excitement buzzes about the potential for Channels State Forest, home to a highly diverse native plant population that sprawls more than 4,800 acres in Southwest Virginia.
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“Virginia state forests are an amazing wealth of territory that can become a starting point for people to understand what is necessary to do to maintain a pristine environment,” says DeCorte, who started beekeeping as a teenager in his native country of Italy. “They are also places to try to understand how to regenerate land.”
Between DeCorte’s business, The Elysium Honey Co., and his nonprofit work with Melissae, he produces and sells honey, manages hives on public and private lands, and delivers pollinator education at Virginia schools. He advocates for the regeneration of native plants, a “comeback of nature” where bees prosper on native nectar without supplemental food sources of sugarcane syrup.
Mowing, herbicides and their collective actions to eradicate weeds and wild areas reduce food sources for bees throughout Virginia. DeCorte hopes to reverse that trend as he educates students, friends, neighbors and even the general public through partnerships like this.
Project Heightens Honey Awareness
The forestland partnership equally educates the public about beekeeping challenges. Due to the seasonality of blooms, DeCorte provides a supplemental food source to hives in Cumberland State Forest. In Lesesne State Forest, the excessive rain during the 2018 chestnut bloom reduced the chestnut nectar found in honey. It was those trees that initially attracted DeCorte to the project, as he had produced chestnut honey back home in northern Italy.
“In the first year, the honey we harvested had a strong percentage of chestnut inside,” he says. “Chestnut honey has a really particular flavor, almost medicinal and highly recognizable.”
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Chestnut honey appears amber in color with a slight olive-green hue when presented in a wine glass, as DeCorte routinely does. Creighton has attended DeCorte’s honey tastings, a concept that’s very similar to wine tastings, with an aim to showcase the flavors, aromas and colors associated with different nectar sources.
“Being a research forester all these years, I’ve found this honey project very interesting,” Creighton says. “I’m encouraged that we’re doing something that might help contribute to building more honey interest in Virginia.”