Sunday, April 28, 2013

A weed killing - beekeeper’s dilemma.

Are dandelions a wildflower, an exotic weed, or a honey bee forage plant?  What about knapweed, or Canada thistle? Not that long ago, I would have said without hesitation “exotic weeds”! And while most days I still feel that way, I have come to see these plants in a new light.
Early Spring Dandelion

I have been trained as a land manager, and a big part of that is noxious weed control. In my current position, I maintain a herbicide applicators license with our state Department of Agriculture, and administer the noxious weed control program on the state lands within our administrative unit. Roughly 65,000 acres. 
To that end, several times a year I go to training sessions and seminars to learn the latest trends and developments in the weed killing world.  Often this means listening to enthusiastic presentations about the latest and greatest chemicals the industry has to offer.  There are chemicals for everything these days, and if you take everything the vendors say as gospel, chemicals are the answer to all our troubles.

Luckily, there are more than just chemicals in the weed killer’s arsenal. There is also grazing, mowing, bio-controls (weed killing insects) and of course hand pulling. This is what we in the business call Integrated Pest Management (IPM).  As a weed manager IPM is very important, as over reliance on one method or chemical will result in a new generation of super weeds.   
So, we can all agree that noxious weeds are bad and must be dealt with. Or can we?

A beekeeper may see things differently. The first blooms of spring are hugely important to honey bees. This is a time when honey bee colonies are very weak and food sources are scarce. The end of winter / beginning of spring is when honey bees starve.  To a honey bee emerging from the hive on an early spring day and seeing (or sensing) a dandelion in full bloom and ripe with nectar, must be pretty amazing after months of cold weather and no blooms.
Later in the summer after all the native plants have long since quit blooming and bolted, knapweed and thistles continue to thrive. Long into the droughty days of autumn, these exotics provide excellent nectar and pollen that bees use extensively. These plants provide much of the honey we harvest in the fall; in fact many people actually prefer the honey from some very noxious weeds such as knapweed.

So what’s a beekeeping - weed manager to do? For me it’s a tough question, but for now I will continue to fight noxious weeds with every tool I’ve got. The damage to native ecosystems from noxious weeds is tremendous and costly in many ways. Noxious weeds as a rule are poor feed. They out compete native plants and create monocultures. Noxious weeds effectively remove thousands of acres per year from production of livestock and wildlife.  

That being said, if I ever get a chance to place some bee hives near a field with knapweed, I’ll do it!


April I [Heart] My Life said...

Great post, Kyle. What would native bees in your area use if the non-natives weren't blooming? Are the non-natives the first to bloom? Interesting stuff!

Kyle and Whitney said...

Actually the trees (maples and willows) are the first to bloom in this area, although the maples are not native either. It really depends on your area as to what blooms first.
I think the important thing is that native bees are adapted to work with the native flowers, they have co-evolved. And so for the European honey bee, the flowers of European descent are the ones they evolved with.
I have often wondered though, how the non-native have changed the habits of the native bees. Have they actually been helpfull to the natives due to more forage? Interesting question...