Tractor Time Episode 27: Jodi Helmer, Author, Protecting Pollinators

Hosted by Ryan Slabaugh / Sponsored by BCS America

Good day and welcome to Tractor Time, brought to you by Acres U.S.A., the Voice of Eco-Agriculture. I’m your host, Ryan Slabaugh, and it feels like a spring day here in Greeley, Colorado, where we are recording episode 27.

BCS America

It’s been a very interesting week in eco-agriculture, and while I don’t want to get too much into the news, it’s worth mentioning that we have a bunch of customers have lost buildings to the heavy winds and flooding in the Midwest and out near our offices, we are following another Monsanto trial that decided the behemoth is responsible for informing its users about the potential risks, including cancer.

So the pressure’s on. A lot of people I’ve talked to think a vacuum is coming, where Roundup will be replaced by something … and we know the toxic race is on, but we sure hope some farmers can find a way to use nutrient-based farming techniques on part of their land.

At least, that’s why we are here today. We are going to talk to Jodi Helmer, a journalist, gardener and author of six books, who with Island Press is releasing a new book, Protecting Pollinators, available in the Acres U.S.A. bookstore. We wanted to take this chance to talk bees and butterflies … and even long-nosed bats, and what threatens them today, and how we can help. We haven’t had an episode dedicated to this topic yet, so we needed one, as we know pollinators are one of the secret ingredients for growing food that we’ve neglected to include in a lot of our commercial agriculture systems. We’ll learn more about where we are with this episode, how the protect the bees movement is doing, and what we can do with the land we own, rent and work at to help foster a better environment.

Subscribe to our channel on YouTube, iTunes or anywhere podcasts are available. Also, find us on,, and don’t forget to subscribe to our monthly magazine. Thanks for listening, and have a great week ahead.

Pollinators: Bees and Other Insects Will Increase Farm Production

Farmers can play an important role in creating monarch feeding areas and managing migration corridors.
Farmers can play an important role in creating monarch feeding areas and managing migration corridors.

Supporting resident and migrating pollinators, including bees, not only aids a critical link in the natural ecosystem cycle, but a farm’s production can increase substantially with the presence of ample pollinators.

By giving pollinators safe shelter, water and a supplemental food supply in addition to nectar supplied by crops, their activity on the farm can increase. It’s helpful to remember that while pollinators include the more familiar honeybees and mason bees, they also include various other animals. The Fish and Wildlife Service reports that there are more than 100,000 different animal species (they say the numbers may be as many as 200,000) which play roles in pollinating the 250,000 kinds of flowering plants on the planet. The most common ones are the insects which include bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, flies and beetles. But they report that as many as 1,500 species of vertebrates, including birds and mammals such as hummingbirds and fruit and nectar-eating bats, also serve as pollinators.

Though butterflies and moths pollinate somewhat differently than honeybees, the more familiar pollinators, they’re still a vital link in nature’s overall pollination plan even though a few of their caterpillars can become pests to farmers growing certain crops.

Butterflies, in general, have very good vision and can also see the color red, which bees cannot, according to the USDA Forest Service. They’re also able to detect ultraviolet light which further helps them find nectar. Butterflies taste with their feet and prefer bright colored flowers that are open during the day and that have wide landing platforms whether the flowers are in close clusters or larger singles. While perching on the flowers, pollen collects on their legs and wings as they hunt around for nectar. Not as much pollen is touched and stuck to their long legs and wings as does pollen on bees, but their flight range is often further, allowing them to spread the pollen they do collect throughout a larger region.

Monarchs, specifically, are known to seek out milkweed to lay their eggs. Their caterpillars feed only on milkweed (meaning they leave farmed crops alone) and milkweed also offers nectar to other important pollinators. But as adults, monarch butterflies need a steady supply of other nectar plants. And with monarchs being migratory, the Monarch Joint Venture (MJV) points out that the timing of the blooming plants needs to correspond with the timing of the monarchs’ arrival. Therefore, even if a list of favored monarch nectar plants is planted and nurtured on the farm, climate change and other variables could mean those plants’ blossoms open too soon or too late to feed the butterflies when they are passing through. The MJV website,, has articles and links for rural landowners interested in aiding both the western and eastern monarch populations.

Farmers can play an important role in creating monarch (larva and butterfly) feeding areas as well as helping to manage their migratory corridors. According to MJV, agricultural fields used to be an important source of milkweed for monarch caterpillars because historically, native milkweed grew alongside crop plants. The widespread use of herbicides and herbicide- tolerant crops diminished much of the milkweed growing on farmlands. Though milkweed can tolerate light tilling, it can’t survive herbicides. MJV suggests that farmers plant native flowers in fallow fields, hedgerows and farm field margins which combine early, middle and late blooming species with blossoming times that overlap. If possible, they suggest allowing native milkweed to either grow in unused portions of the farm, or to use either no-till or low-till farming techniques and allow more milkweed to grow alongside crops.

Though the cost of the initial native milkweed and flower planting, including the time itself to plant the pollinator habitat, can be an obstacle for some farmers, others may be able to synergize their monarch (or other butterfly and moth pollination projects) with agritourism to at least indirectly benefit the farm’s bottom line. CSA farmers, for example, can request help, donations and feedback from their members regarding the farm becoming a monarch or butterfly habitat. Farms that benefit financially from positive public exposure can use the project to attract media attention. The MJV also offers information on Citizen Science projects CSA members can take part in. Farmers involved in farm-to-school programs may be able to coordinate farm tours with area teachers and classrooms. The tours can be fee-based at cost-per-head, or can be used as a method to sell other on-farm products directly as a result of visitors coming to the farm to see the monarch habitat. And of course, a native nectar garden also feeds other pollinators which can directly enhance the production of many farm crops.

Various moth species contribute to butterflies’ pollination for daytime bloomers as well as for plants with flowers that open at night. In one extreme case, the crop cannot survive without its partnership with a specific moth. The yucca plant which is grown and sold far from its original native habitat depends on the yucca moth for survival. The adult yucca moth doesn’t seek nectar because its lifespan is so short. But after mating, the female moth carefully scrapes off pollen from yucca flowers, holds the pollen in a lump under her “chin,” then purposefully and carefully deposits pollen into the stamen of a flower.

Not only that, she makes sure the pollen is deposited in a different flower from the one she collected it from to ensure cross pollination. She eventually lays her eggs in the flower, and though some of her young will consume a few seeds, the number of yucca seeds eaten in general does not put a dent in the number of seeds that will be formed because of her pollination. She can even detect if a flower already has eggs laid in it and if so, she moves on to another flower, which makes sure no flower will have too many of its seeds eaten because of too many larvae. Though yucca plants are grown and sold far beyond their area of origin, even into Canada, the moths have managed to follow them and adapt to the newer climates.

This report appears in the July 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.


For those interested in adding habitats or gardens specifically for pollinators, the following sources offer free or low cost guides.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers basic overviews for planting pollinator gardens and building bee nesting blocks. From there, it offers links to more in depth information and instructions; pollinators/pollinatorpages/yourhelp.html.

The National Center for Appropriate Technology offers a low-cost publication on attracting native pollinators. It provides information and resources on how to plan for, protect and create habitat for native bees in agricultural settings. The full-color digital version is currently $4.95. The black and white print edition is currently $7.95; attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=75.

When planting for pollinators, native plants are usually encouraged. Landowners can contact their local or state Native Plant Society for names of and resources for appropriate species.

The Pollinator Partnership of the NAPPC offers free eco-regional pollinator planting guides and resources for pollinator gardens and lists the types of blossoms the various pollinator species groups (bees, bats, etc.) prefer;

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service offers a number of documents and leaflets on conserving pollinators; pollinators/NRCSdocuments.html.

Some state’s cooperative extension services offer guidance on planting for local resident and migrating pollinators. To find extension services in any given state, visit the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s extension page;

Grow Native Plants for Bees

By Dr. Leo Sharashkin

The moment you get your first honeybees, you start noticing all the flowers around you and begin to ponder the potential plants you could grow to support pollinator health.

You become acutely aware of hives’ surroundings for a mile in every direction. This is the effective flight range of the bee—the distance she is prepared to travel to collect nectar, pollen, water and other necessities for her colony. This represents three square miles—2,000 acres of terrain—that the bees have at their disposal.

The Omniscient Bee

Using hundreds of scouts, the colony’s collective intelligence tracks in real time the location of all significant sources of nectar and pollen, their abundance, the exact times of day when a particular plant secretes nectar, and even its nutritional value. They know there’s a single basswood tree in bloom three-quarters of a mile south-southwest of their nest. They know the location of a small patch of buckwheat that you planted as a cover crop in your garden, and that they better get to it in the morning before the afternoon heat cuts the nectar flow. Foraging maps are updated daily, new blooms are promptly discovered, and fading flowers immediately abandoned.

Blazing star (Liatris)
Blazing star (Liatris) blooms late in the season when few other nectar sources are available.

When nectar is abundant, bees do not have to travel far from their hive. If forage is scarce, though, they can fly two miles (sometimes even farther) from the nest to feed themselves, procure food for their young, and store survival packs for the winter. In this case, we are talking about some 12 square miles, or 8,000 acres, that they rely upon for their livelihood.

Bees, of course, are not aware of any property lines.

As the Ukrainian beekeeper Illarion Kullanda put it in his Bees for Everyone (1882), “The bee enriches a keeper both rich and poor, for she never asks if the blossoms belong to her master or to a neighbor.” They still live in the world of freedom and plenty. All the fields and meadows and forests they can fly to are part of their domain, which they readily share with other creatures.

Bees will fearlessly defend their own nest from intrusion, but their “private ownership” ends with the walls of their hive. If a bee is visiting a flower and is disturbed by a bird, another insect, or a human, she will simply fly on to another bloom rather than striking back. Why fight when there is enough for everyone? To me, this lesson is just as valuable as the honey and wax I get from my bees.

From their knowledge of every corner of their kingdom comes bees’ great strength and, in our times, their great vulnerability. You see a few foragers dying in convulsions at the hive entrance and become concerned: did they visit some poisonous plant (of which there are a small number), or perhaps the neighbor sprayed something on his fields? Will this honey be safe for my children to eat? What can we do to help the bees? I keep hearing this question over and over again. It is heartwarming that so many people are concerned about the welfare of bees and other pollinators.

Fortunately, there is a good answer, and it is very important, because by helping the bees we can also help ourselves.

Fly for Your Life

Honeybees are an indicator species. Just as caged canaries that alert miners to the presence of deadly gases or rats that give sailors the first warning of a sinking ship, bees are a very sensitive gauge of ecosystem health.

I remember my uncle telling me as a boy to never fish in a stream where I couldn’t see “a happy crawdad family.” No crawdads meant something was seriously wrong with the water quality, indicating either industrial pollution or pesticide runoff from the fields (they were still using DDT back then).

Bees are indicator species
Bees are indicator species.

By being so intricately linked to the flowers over such a large area, bees can signal environmental issues better than any man-made equipment.

Many beekeepers, doctors and philosophers marvel at the ancient observation that what is good for the bees is also good for humans, including flowers, fresh air, sunshine, community, movement and all the healing products of the hive: honey, pollen, propolis (bee resin), beeswax and royal jelly.

Conversely, what damages bees (dampness, cold, inhumane treatment or pesticides) will be very detrimental to humans, too. This is why I would not deem it safe to live in a place where honeybees are not thriving.

It is a well-known fact that bees working only one floral source (e.g., an endless field of rape) become much more aggressive than colonies that have access to a wide variety of flowers.

This manifestation of anger is a sure indication that bees perceive lack of biodiversity as deeply unsettling. After all, biodiversity literally means “diversity of life.” When there is no diversity, life itself is in danger. I think every ecological farmer can relate to this on a very deep level as they witness it over and over in the field.

The toxic cocktails of agrochemicals that poison bees may only be one of the reasons for bees’ recent decline. Wild habitat loss and very low biodiversity in agricultural landscapes must also be having a major impact.

Bees are adapted to a mind-boggling diversity of flowering plants, and each source of nectar and pollen offers a unique mix of nutrients and other substances. When this diversity is absent, bees are bound to suffer. Imagine your diet suddenly reduced to only a couple of ingredients.

The early accounts of honeybees in America paint a picture of vigor and abundance. Brought over by European settlers, bees became more prosperous here than in the Old World—to the point that wild honey was so plentiful that there was little incentive to “keep” them. They were first seen in Illinois around 1800, and only 18 years later there was “more honey available than elsewhere in the world.”

In Missouri, a man could locate 30 new bee trees in a week. No wonder 19th-century authors talk about “seas of nectar” that the Lord instructed the bees to gather “to sweeten man’s life with honey and free mead.”

But this all-you-can-eat bonanza was extremely short-lived. A century later, the principal sources of nectar were clover and alfalfa—forage crops native to Eurasia. Today, on a per-acre basis, the United States has eleven times fewer hives than Europe, and up to three-fourths of the honey consumed in this country is imported.

Apiculture or Apiforestry?

Where has the old-time bounty gone? Just as in Europe, the emergence of hive beekeeping and dependence on agricultural nectar sources went hand in hand with the destruction of wild ecosystems that provided a virtually limitless supply of nectar from thousands of species of flowering plants. Basswood forests were logged out, meadows were converted to pasture or plowed up, and old-growth trees with spacious hollows for bee nests became exceedingly rare.

The agricultural landscapes that succeeded the primeval ecosystems lacked several key traits that are essential for honeybee survival and productivity. In northern climates, bees thrive in dense forests that protect nests from windchill. With this protection in place, tree beekeeping in medieval Russia extended as far north as Archangel, which is on the same latitude as Fairbanks, Alaska. But the thin-walled hives that modern beekeepers leave in the open to withstand winter winds means that bees now have trouble surviving even in much warmer climates.

Large Linden tree and meadow
Basswood (American Linden) forests

Secondly, monoculture fields and orchards have none of the continuity of nectar flow and pollen available in the wild. For example, in the Ozarks of southern Missouri, where I live, a broadleaf forest near a stream will have native plants in bloom continuously from early spring (redbuds, willows, wild plum, dandelions, maples, then oaks), through the summer (blackberry, sumac, basswood, blazing star), and into the fall (asters and goldenrods).

And even when it’s extremely dry and hot, we get honeydew honey from oaks and black walnuts. This of course is totally different from an orange orchard or a field of buckwheat, where you have a deluge of nectar over a two-week period and then nothing for the rest of the year.

Today’s beekeepers get around this problem by hauling their hives from place to place—either locally (a blueberry farm, then a clover field, then a wilderness area full of sumacs) or even across the country (California almond plantations, apple orchards in Washington, sunflowers in North Dakota, then Arizona for the winter).

But migratory beekeeping creates another host of problems. Thousands of bee colonies from all over the country converging on a plantation spread disease, get doused in pesticide and—their honey “robbed”—survive as best they can on mega-doses of sugar syrup.

Faced with the honeybee decline, what should we do? Should we be using “the best of science” to devise new chemical drugs to prop bees up and help them survive in the most unnatural of environments? Or should we restore living landscapes that would make migrating for our honey unnecessary, and return to the bees the resilience and health for which they were once famous? To me, this is the only sensible alternative.

Bee Pasture

So let’s plant some bee pastures. What plants should we seed? Would a 10-foot by 10-foot patch of buckwheat be enough for a hive or two?

When I started writing this article, I thought I would include descriptions of a dozen of my favorite honey plants with pretty pictures and encourage every grower to plant a border of wildflowers.

Bee visiting buckwheat flower
Bees love buckwheat flowers but thrive with variety.

What could be simpler? But I realized that if I did that, I would not be completely truthful with my readers. This is because, in many cases, the single best option is to allow ecosystems to revert to their semi-natural state.

One of my neighbors is an absentee landowner living in a large city. His pastureland has not been used or brush hogged for some 20 years, and this is where I get most of my honey! The luxurious mix of sumacs, prickly pear cacti, mints, thistles and other delicacies create a veritable honeybee paradise.

Not only that, but the great diversity of flowering plants in this semi-wild tract results in honey with such a rich and complex flavors that I sell it for $20 per pound, and I have my full year’s crop spoken for before the first bee gets out of the hive in the spring.

The most conservative of calculations show that these dry and rocky south-facing slopes would never offer nearly as much value to the owner if used for cattle pasture or hay.

Letting the land lie fallow or “unused” sounds almost like bad husbandry today and is often looked down upon. But, as an example, in 19th-century Russia, the long-rotation agriculture that allowed fields to revert to woody vegetation before being put into field crops was seen as a highly progressive method of restorative farming.

Plants for Bees: Which Species to Plant?

To decide which trees, shrubs and flowers you can plant, visit a natural spot or an old field abuzz with bees. Not only will it give you clear indication of what native plants thrive in your location, but you will have a readily available and free source of seeds for planting.

early-blooming redbud
The nectar of the early-blooming redbud fuels bee colony buildup in the spring.

Plants of the same species in different locations can produce very different nectars, so no written source will ever be completely reliable. For example, I’ve never seen a single bee visit the blooms of my catalpa trees or even black locusts, but farther north these are important nectar producers.

There are several excellent sources of information on American nectar plants. The basic plant list, by geographic region, can be found in USDA Agriculture Handbook 335: Beekeeping in the United States. Frank Pellett’s American Honey Plants is another wonderful reference that includes not only plant descriptions but also plant listings by state. Both of these sources can be downloaded for free from my website.

The task of selecting the right plants from hundreds of available species is often daunting. Lest the reality be bleaker than the pretty pictures in nursery catalogs, let us consider several points to help you choose the right plants to best suit your bees’ needs.

Native Linden tree flowers
The American Linden tree is great for native bees thanks to its flowers.

A single bee colony deploys over 100,000 foragers over the season, and each forager can visit up to 3,000 blooms a day. Fedor Lazutin, one of Europe’s leading natural beekeepers and author of Keeping Bees with a Smile, planted up to two acres of wildflowers per hive.

But if land is at a premium, shrubs and trees are the way to go. A single mature basswood tree can produce a gallon of honey in a good season. The area that you have to plant, of course, depends on the surrounding vegetation.

If you border a wilderness area with an abundance of flowering plants, you may not need to plant additional forage, but if your five acres are surrounded by fields under conventional row crops, you will want to provide your bees as much forage on your land as possible.

Plants for Bees: An ‘A’ for Bee Effort

Consider the amount of effort that you want to devote to planting trees and flowers. I was once driving to a conference and daydreaming about what I would do with my life if I had no mortgage bills to worry about. Planting trees for bees was the answer. I got so excited with this vision that I missed my exit.

Many types of trees, however, are relatively difficult to establish; in my location, basswood would require individual cages against deer for three years and irrigation during the first two. Some species are much less demanding, though: planting a stream bank of willows comes down to spreading a weed barrier and sticking cuttings through it.

Biannual Viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare)
Bee-friendly Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) flower

Annuals, of course, require yearly replanting, but you can cut that effort in half by planting a mixture of annuals and biannuals. During the first year, the annual plant produces nectar while the biannual puts down roots and gets established. In the second year, the annual is gone and the biannual produces nectar. I gleaned this technique from Lazutin. His favorite mixture in Zone 4 consists of phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia), the annual native to California, and viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare), a prodigiously productive biannual from Europe.

Many shrubs offer a ragged walkaway alternative: you plant a root cutting of sumac (Rhus glabra) in the spring and it forms a huge coppice that occupies all of the nearby sunny space.

Female plants yield lots of nectar, and males produce loads of pollen. According to John Harvey Lovell’s Honey Plants of North America, “strong colonies [working sumac] will bring in 20 pounds of honey during an ideal day, and will store from 40 to 100 pounds each.”

Sumac is very easy to propagate, is highly ornamental with its scarlet foliage and berry clusters, spreads easily, grows great on poor rocky soil and could not care less about drought. The berries come in large, easy-to-harvest clusters and are intensely sour due to the malic acid they contain. Native Americans used them for healing and making lemonade, and we do as well. The honey has a wonderful citrusy flavor with overtones of lemon zest.

The good effort-saving news about nectar plants is that doing nothing is often the best way to establish them. Stop mowing your lawn, and it will be a carpet of dandelions in only two years’ time. Don’t brush hog your unused land, and five years later you’ll have eight-foot tall sumacs.

In the meantime, you can plant perennial flowers. Many mints spread by their roots and establish wonderfully fragrant low-maintenance patches. Horsemint (Mentha longifolia), while not an American native, is much adored by bees, and just walking through it would qualify as aromatherapy.

California native annual phacelia flower
California native annual phacelia

Finally, while planting trees that will become important sources of nectar in 20 or 30 years may seem impractical, every time I walk through a 150-year-old basswood alley I feel thankful that economic calculus is not the only driving force behind human actions. If anything, we need to start early. Imagine if school students devoted 10 percent of their biology curriculum to planting trees.

Plant for Nectar Continuity

Bees can harvest very large amounts of honey when there is continuous nectar flow from early spring till autumn. If the hive’s 50,000-strong workforce has no nectar to gather, not only is the potential crop is lost, but reserves start to dwindle as idle workers consume them mid-season. To save honey from being eaten by bees, many beekeepers pull it before the dearth period (say, dry flowerless August) and give bees sugar syrup.

Salvia flowers
Sage (salvia spp.) is easy to grow and a boon to bees.

Another alternative would be to plant additional bee forage to cover the gaps in existing honey flow. Annuals can be planted several times at four- or six-week intervals, or you can select plants that bloom and re-seed several times during the season. Borage is one of these. If you have plentiful nectar available during the spring and early summer but few natural sources later in the season, plant late-blooming species such as asters.

Multipurpose Plants

Many agricultural crops are good nectar producers. In fact, honeybees contribute more to world agriculture through pollination than by their production of honey and wax.

If you have a diversified farm with a variety of crops, you are probably already providing sufficient bee forage, to the great benefit of your crops. Buckwheat, rape, mustard, corn, fruit trees, berry bushes, beans, cucurbits, herbs and forage crops are all sources of nectar and pollen. You can also consider honey plants when planting a green manure, a windbreak, or a future source of firewood and timber.

Plants for Bees: Native vs. Non-native

Today’s agriculture is cosmopolitan, and most crops are not native to America. There is no arguing that clover, alfalfa, sainfoin, viper’s bugloss and borage (all European natives) are powerful and beautiful honey plants.

Borage plant/herb flower is great for bees
Borage flowers (Borago officinalis) keep bees happy.

Whenever I choose plants specifically for honeybees, I try to give preference to species native to where I live. This way the plantings also benefit a myriad of native pollinator species, and you get to taste honeys that are unique to your locale.

In Michigan I would plant fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium), in California sages (Salvia spp.) and phacelia, and in Pennsylvania tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera) and American basswood (Tilia Americana). If I had a waterlogged spot along a stream in Missouri, I would plant buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).

There is something about buttonbush that I can describe with only one word: Love. It fills the space with a sweet tropical scent; the white globes of ornate flowers shine like stars; the working of bees shows a glimpse of a world without war. And I come to understand Illarion Kullanda’s words: “Look at all the forests and orchards and meadows and fields overflowing with sweetness and joy! This sweetness and joy are yours without industry or expense. The only thing asked of you is that you freely take it without destroying the source.”

Dr. Leo Sharashkin lives on a forest homestead in the Ozarks in southern Missouri where he catches swarms, propagates nectar plants and keeps bees in a variety of horizontal hives. He is editor of Keeping Bees With a Smile: A Vision and Practice of Natural Apiculture by Fedor Lazutin—a comprehensive resource on natural laid-back beekeeping, available from Acres U.S.A. Two other books in the same series, Growing Vegetables With a Smile and Growing Fruit With a Smile, by Nikolay Kurdyumov, are also available from Acres U.S.A. Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives is also a great resource for those interested in natural beekeeping. For more information on horizontal hives, free hive plans and nectar plant information, visit Dr. Leo’s website. This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Healthy Pollination: Horizontal Hives Support Natural Beekeeping

By Jill Henderson

Healthy pollination is the goal almost every beekeeper starts with, but it is often easier said than done.

If you have ever dreamed of keep­ing bees but found the process com­plicated, expensive, or the potential for losing your investment to disease and pests all too real, then you have never met Dr. Leo Sharashkin. He is a prominent wild bee enthusiast, edu­cator and apiarist who practices an ancient method of catching and keep­ing wild bees in specially designed horizontal hives.

If you have had the good fortune to meet Sharashkin or to hear him speak to a room full of enthusiastic beekeep­ers or the crowd that inevitably gath­ers around his Horizontal Hive booth at growers’ conferences across the country, you already know that his knowledge of bees is boundless and the methods he uses to keep them, truly inspiring. Whether you are a budding beekeeper or an experienced apiarist, you can keep happy and productive bees with less work and money than you ever imagined pos­sible and do so in a sustainable way.

A bee pollinates a flower
A bee pollinates a flower.

Sharashkin came to the United States from Russia and studied at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he earned his Ph.D. in agro­forestry. He currently lives and works on his rural homestead in the south-central Missouri Ozarks with his wife and four children.

Sharashkin’s interest in sustainable agriculture began as a child growing up in Russia where his family, like many others, raised much of their own fruits, vegetables and honey on small plots of land in the countryside known as dachas. As part of his re­search he completed an agricultural production study showing that gar­deners and small farmers produced a whopping 53 percent of food in post-Soviet Russia on these tiny plots of land and did so with less inputs and labor than large commercial farms.

Sharashkin has edited several books including; Keeping Bees With a Smile: A Vision and Practice of Natural Apiculture by his friend and mentor, Fedor Lazutin; Growing Vegetables With a Smile; Growing Fruit With a Smile by Nikolay Kurdyumov; and Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives: A Complete Guide to Apiculture by Georges de Layens. In addition to giving multiple presentations on natural beekeeping each year, Sharashkin conducts an intensive two-day beekeeping work­shop near his home where he runs his business, Horizontal Hive.

Pollination Progressions

The tradition of beekeeping goes back into antiquity. No one really knows how long mankind has been tapping natural sources of wild hon­ey or exactly when the first human thought to keep bees close at hand. Today, the majority of commercial and recreational apiarists in the Unit­ed States keep their bees in classic vertical Langstroth hives that consist of a series of square boxes stacked on top of each other. The bottom two boxes in a Langstroth hive are home to the queen bee and her brood. Be­tween this and the next set of boxes, which are known as honey supers, is a thin mesh screen called a bee excluder, which prevents the queen from entering and “fouling” honey stores by laying eggs in those frames.

Sharashkin suggests that Langstroth hives are only good for “migratory commercial beekeepers” because they are relatively lightweight and can be stacked and moved on flatbed trucks across the country where the bees are used to pollinate agricultural fields and orchards. While Langstroth hives allow access to the bees, the apiarist can only open one box at a time from the top down, which creates stress on the bees and requires a lot of heavy lifting by the beekeeper. Sharashkin doesn’t use Langstroth hives and doesn’t suggest them to recreational or small-scale beekeepers. Instead, he prefers to work with horizontal hives, which he feels offer a more natural arrangement for the bees.

Large honeycomb
Large honeycomb from a horizontal hive.

“In a horizontal hive there is one long box with all the frames posi­tioned at one level. This means you have access to all the frames at once and can work the exact part of the hive where you need to, which means less disturbance for the bees and no heavy lifting for you. Horizontal hives also require much less skill and experience from the beekeeper. In the vertical stack it is the beekeeper’s responsibility to know when the bees are ready to expand, and this work has to be done on time and very care­fully, and the colony can be set back significantly by giving them too much volume that they can’t keep, protect, or fully assimilate. In a horizontal hive, the whole volume of the box is accessible to the bees at all times, so they can expand at their own rate. This means that a small or weak colony can grow at its own pace, and big colony can expand much faster. In either case, this is a decision made by the bees and not the beekeeper, which removes yet another operation from your to-do list when working with your bees.”

Sharashkin points out another ben­efit of horizontal hives, which are meant to be stationary and not moved from place to place. Because of this, hives can be built with materials that match both the climate of a particular area and the environmental needs of the bees.

“The Langstroth hive, with its three-quarters of an inch walls, is used all over the United States in cli­mates as different as Florida or upstate Michigan with minus 40 degree win­ters. It shouldn’t be like that at all. In colder climates you need hives with thicker walls and good insulation in the walls. You don’t want to insulate Langstroth hives with heavier wood because it would make them heavier still. But because the horizontal hive isn’t going anywhere, you can insulate the hive right, giving the bees protec­tion from the cold of winter and the heat of summer, which decreases the stress on the bees.”

Sharashkin sums up the advantages of using horizontal hives: “There’s no heavy lifting, making it bee-gentle and beekeeper-gentle at the same time. In a horizontal hive you have access to all of the frames at once, minimizing disturbance, and bees have access to the whole volume of the hive so they can grow at their own pace. With a horizontal hive, it doesn’t require the skill and years of experience to learn exactly when to expand the brood nest, because the bees are doing that for you.”

When I asked Sharashkin a ques­tion about his method of keeping bees, he quickly corrected me by saying, “I would like to stress that this is not my method, because the approaches I use are time-tested and have been used by beekeepers for thousands of years, so we are talking about practices that are very ancient.”

Indeed, keeping wild bees is not a new idea, and horizontal hives are not a new invention, but rather, a tidy take on natural bee trees and bee gums that many cultures around the world have used to keep wild bees within easy reach. And like Sharashkin, early apiarists didn’t fool around with their bees much, either — they simply let them do what bees naturally do best. Unless there is something noticeably wrong with a hive, Sharashkin says that he generally only opens his hives once in the spring and again in the fall. Repeatedly disturbing the hive is a major source of stress that weakens the colony and leads to problems such as increased susceptibility to parasites and diseases, and an increase in ag­gressive behavior.

Local Pollinators

For many, the most captivating aspect of Sharashkin’s approach to beekeeping is that he relies entirely on catching local swarms of wild bees to populate his hives using catch boxes baited with propolis and lemongrass oil. When asked about the difference between wild bees and those that most people purchase when starting a hive, Sharashkin explains, “The Euro­pean honeybee is not native to North America, but was brought here by European settlers and became natu­ralized. There is tremendous variation in the traits in the different races and strains of wild honeybees depending on where they live. They need to be adapted to the particular conditions of the area, including temperatures in the summer and winter, and even the blooming patterns of the local vegetation, to survive. So instead of having just one honeybee all over its native range, we have populations of honeybees that have their own unique traits and being adapted to the local conditions makes all the difference to their health and survival. Commercial bees are selected and bred for maxi­mum honey production, gentleness and other traits that are beneficial to the beekeeper, but not the bees.”

According to Sharashkin, the prob­lem with purchasing bees from a breeder is multifaceted. If you want to keep bees in Michigan and the bees you purchased came from Texas, they will not be adapted to long, cold win­ter conditions and may struggle or die without a lot of intervention on your part. On the other hand, feral honey­bees are already adapted to your spe­cific local weather conditions, have survived in the wild, are naturally hardy and have already figured out how to deal with pests, diseases and predators. They also have an innate sense of when to go into or break out of winter hibernation, the right time to begin egg-laying and how much honey they need and how to allocate it in order to survive the winter.

A bee on a wild rose
A wild prairie rose with a with a small wild bee collecting pollen… close-up..

He also talked about the stress that bees go through when shipped across the country, saying that this can impact the queen’s overall fertility, which is necessary to build a strong colony as soon as possible.

“Matching the strain of bee to your local conditions is really a question of life and death for your colony. If you are not matching these, then you will have to rectify this mismatch with extra management.”

After hearing Sharashkin talk about the superiority of wild bees, I couldn’t help but wonder how he knew for sure that the bees he catches are really wild and not overbred European bees absconding from a nearby hive.

“When swarms emerge from a hive they usually travel a mile or less to find their new home,” he said. “I control whether I catch really wild swarms or bees from someone else’s hives by not placing my swarm catching boxes within 3 miles of any known apiary.” He went on to say that even if he did catch a swarm of traditionally bred bees that they would still be superior to packaged bees. If that swarm sur­vived and were kept using a natural method, the queen would mate with wild drones and the colony as a whole would slowly transition into a natural­ized variety and become “local” over several years’ time. Sharashkin calls bees like this survival stock. Yet, not all producers want what’s best, but rather, they just want more, faster.

“The problem with beekeeping and agriculture at large is that we are too impatient. We don’t want to wait a few seasons for nature to pro­duce a resilient variety, we want it straightaway and many are prepared to pay the price for having less than optimal stock, whether it be animals, bees, or the plants that we put into our farm.” But for the patient beekeeper, catching and keeping wild swarms naturally is not only easier, more hu­mane and healthier for bees, the envi­ronment and humans, but ultimately much more successful and rewarding.

When asked how he convinced traditional beekeepers to switch to a more natural method, Sharashkin an­swered frankly, saying that he doesn’t have time to convince anyone of the superiority of the natural approach he uses because there is such a tremen­dous interest from those who already want to adopt a more sustainable way.

“I’m simply providing practical in­formation to those who already know that they are not going to feed their bees sugar water or use known human carcinogens inside their hives to try to control diseases — contaminating wax and honey at the same time. So, for those who tend commercially, the best argument is not anything I can say, but just seeing this other method at work.”

The other drawback for big, com­mercial producers is that natural bee­keeping doesn’t produce as much honey. Sharashkin harvests roughly 20 pounds of honey from each hive, leaving the rest for the bees. Although that isn’t enough to satisfy commercial beekeepers, it is more than enough for most recreational or self-sufficient apiarists. Depending on how many hives you have, the excess honey you harvest could be worth a small fortune to those who appreciate real, pure, unadulterated honey harvested from bees raised in a humane and natural way without sugar or chemicals of any kind.

“Increased production comes at the greater expense of management. If a colony is forced to produce the maximum amount of honey possible, it will also be out of balance in terms of pests and parasites. If you grow your colony too big for the sake of maximum honey production then it becomes like a monoculture, which is a breeding ground for all types of pests and diseases. So, by limiting my honey harvest to 20 pounds per hive, I am able to keep it at the natural level where the harvest is not as big of a stress for the colony and where I can obtain this production with minimal management and effort.”

Sharashkin is an enthusiastic and ear­nest proponent of natural beekeeping. His research, experi­ence and passion for preserving the genetic diversity of local natu­ralized bees and the environment in which they live is highly contagious — even for non-beekeepers. The honey he produces in his beautiful and functional horizontal hives is of the highest quality and of superb and complex flavor because the bees have complete access to and free-choice of a huge array of flowering native plants throughout their forage range, not just one or two monocrops like clover and alfalfa.

Sharashkin makes keeping bees in a way that closely mimics nature’s designs as easy and realistic as any beekeeper could imagine, only open­ing his stationary hives two or three times per season at most.

“I open the hive in the spring, making sure the hive is alive and well and add more frames for the bees to store honey in,” he said. “Then, if the colony looks good, I basically do not touch them until October or early November when I pull the frames with hon­eycomb, extract the honey and put the frames back in the hive. If I see that a colony is not doing well I may open the box in the middle of summer, but this is more of an excep­tion than a rule. I keep telling people that keeping bees is simpler than grow­ing vegetables, because with vegetables you need to plant the seed, water it, mulch it and protect it from pests and deer and so on. It’s a lot of effort on your part. But with hon­eybees — because they are still a wild animal — you can put them in a hive and leave them alone for the entire season, and if they are worth their salt, they will still be there at the end of the season with some surplus honey to share with you.”

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gardener. She is edi­tor of Show Me Oz (, a weekly blog fea­turing articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country and The Garden Seed Saving Guide.

This issue first appeared in the May 2017 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Pollinators in Peril

Pollinators have a staunch ally in Graham White. White, a small-scale hobby beekeeper in Scotland, has been an international campaigner on the dangers of neonicotinoid pesticides since 2003. To this endeavor, he brings his background in environmental education and teaching, a fascination with the biodiversity of life, and his long-term involvement in environmental issues.

Graham White, protector of pollinators

Graham White, a small-scale hobby beekeeper in Scotland, has been an international campaigner on the dangers of neonicotinoid pesticides and their affect on pollinators since 2003.

Born into a family of coal miners and glassmakers in an industrial town near Liverpool, England, White developed his love of nature exploring remnant woodlands and abandoned 19th century canals. As a teenager he was introduced to hiking, and as a university student in the late 1960s he became an avid rock climber. He credits his 1976 expedition, hiking the John Muir Trail from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney in California, with changing his life.

When White returned to the UK, he decided to make it his mission to introduce John Muir’s writings and environmental values to the people of Britain. Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892, was from Scotland, but was virtually unknown there. White founded the UK’s first Environment Centre in Edinburgh in 1978 and served as founding director for 23 years. In 1994 he proposed the creation of The John Muir Award for environmental excellence as a personal development program for people of all ages. In recent years over 200,000 people have completed this national challenge award.

White is also an accomplished nature photographer, an author and editor of environmentally themed books and articles, and a radio broadcaster. His radio productions include the BBC interview series Deep in Conservation with environmental luminaries such as David Brower, Satish Kumar, Vandana Shiva, Wangari Maathai, Amory Lovins, and Bill Mollison. (more…)