The Buzz on WNC Bees

| By Jonna Rae Bartges |

Here’s a win-win for you. You know how much you hate pulling out dandelion plants?

Jennifer Blalock tending her “girls”!

Just… stop it.

Not only will you be able to avoid a task you dislike – you’ll simultaneously be helping the region’s dwindling bee population.

According to Buncombe County Beekeepers Club Vice President Jennifer Blalock, what bees need the most right now is forage. Those dandelions are one of the first pollen sources bees find in the spring.

“Farmers used to plant clover and alfalfa to enrich the soil between regular crop seasons,” Jennifer explained, “and they rotated rye over the winter. Bees had a constant food source.” Now, however, too many farms are instead counting on fertilizers alone to do the job, leaving the already threatened bee population searching elsewhere for nutrients.

Other factors threatening the health of bee populations regionally and globally are pesticides and mites. Both issues are being constantly researched and discussed in beekeeper clubs, which are gaining in popularity for both hobbyists and agriculturalists.

Of the 135 active members of the Buncombe County Beekeepers’ Club, 57 are women. Jennifer says there can be a unique bond between a woman and her bees, and admits to feeling a special connection to her hives. In the winter, she will put her ear against a sealed hive and knock once on the side. When she hears a humming response, she knows ‘her girls’ are doing fine. In the spring and summer, she enjoys just sitting near the hives and observing the steady coming and going of the worker bees.

“Many women seem to handle their hives differently,” Jennifer said. “They seem to be more caring and deliberate, and move so very slowly when they’re working with the bees. They tend to whisper… it’s almost a religious experience.”

It’s certainly a highly spiritual experience for Asheville-area beekeeper and sage Debra Roberts, who was profiled in WNC Woman in 2015. Debra literally travels the globe teaching and inspiring beekeepers, and awakening people to the unique connection between humans and pollinators.

Another local woman has also achieved “Queen Bee” status for her national work to raise awareness and promote positive solutions for protecting pollinators. Phyllis Stiles became a beekeeper when her husband encouraged her to join him in his new hobby. She was quickly enamored with these fascinating and essential creatures, and vowed to do what she could to help them.

Taking her cue from the Tree City USA model that sprouted in cities around the country, she and some members of the Buncombe County Chapter of the NC State Beekeepers Association created the Bee City USA designation. Urban areas aspiring to the distinction must resolve to create sustainable habitats for pollinators, while also initiating dialogues to raise awareness. Asheville was the first city so honored in 2012; currently, there are 40 Bee City USA towns across the nation. Also in the works for June, says Phyllis, is a month-long regional “Pollination Celebration.”

It’s easy for anyone to create a bee-friendly habitat ranging in size from several acres to several pots on a balcony. Here are some tips:

• Bees, like people, need a variety of nutrients for optimum health. Plant a selection of flowers – particularly blue, purple, violet, white and yellow – and ideally in native plants or heirloom varieties. Honeybees are most attracted to sweet-smelling flowers.

• Strategically pick several varieties of plants that bloom at various times of the season to provide a food source into the fall. Early bloomers include blueberry, crabapple, crocus, heather and primrose. Popular mid-season flowers are catnip, chives, lavender, raspberry, sunflower and yarrow. For later in the season, try borage, coneflower, or Echinacea, cosmos, goldenrod, aster, pumpkin and squash.

• Since bees are scouting for food at about 15 mph, planting flowers in three-foot clumps makes it easier for the bees to locate them. If your available space limits you to pots, go for it. Chances are some variety of pollinator will discover your inviting dining spot.

• Bees, butterflies and other pollinators need fresh water sources, but could easily drown in conventional birdbaths. Attract them to a safe drinking spot by lining a shallow bowl or plate with pebbles, and adding enough water to cover the bottom of the plate, while leaving the tops of the stones dry to serve as little landing pads. Refresh the water daily, and soon you’ll have “regulars” who spread the word.

• David Israel of Jesse Israel & Sons recommends “less is more” when it comes to getting rid of pests in ways that might harm bees. He suggests using a more organic and integrated approach, by first observing the threshold of damage to see what’s actually happening to your plants. Maybe instead of chemicals, planting a companion crop close by might lure insects away. For instance, planting garlic next to roses will drive off aphids; basil protects tomatoes. Birds, too, can protect plants by eating the insects.

• The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service offers a free guide, “Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden:” Download PDF here.www.beecityusa.org/uploads/1/2/8/9/12899788/pollinatorbookletfinalrevprint.pdf

• Join the Butterfly Highway. As long as your garden space gets at least six hours of sunlight daily, no spot is too small to provide an appropriate habitat for pollinators. The North Carolina Wildlife Federation has the details online.

A practical tip – don’t eat bananas when you might be going somewhere bees congregate. The fruit smells exactly like the alarm pheromone bees give off when they’re threatened. If they get a whiff of your banana breath – watch out.

For more information on local beekeeping, or to have a beekeeper come speak to your group or class, visit WNCBees.org or beecityusa.org.


Author, Emmy-winner and psychic medium Jonna Rae Bartges is a frequent WNC Woman contributor. She’s balanced intuitive abilities with a career in print and broadcast news, and promotion for TV stations and clients including Disneyland, Legoland and Medieval Times. Upcoming classes include an intuitive development workshop July 22 & 23 that provides 14.16 CNE hours for nurses. For a consultation or a complete listing of events, visit jonnarae.com.

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