They’re usually a little more ill-tempered on cloudy days than they are on bright, sunny days.”
My eyes roll upward to the tops of the trees, which, coincidentally, meet a gloomy, gray sky.
“Oh,” I say. “Great.”
John Gilbert laughs, unfazed. “Unless you go do something that makes them feel threatened,” he says, “they just want to go do their thing and have food.”
We’re on his property in Goochland County, where he’s one of a handful of beekeepers involved in a new agricultural initiative. He walks back to his truck, parked at the edge of a long driveway connecting two integral aspects of the program: a large buckwheat field and a few thousand bees.
If you believe that the most a honeybee can do is provide your morning toast with a spoonful of honey, take a bite of nearly anything and think again. Honeybees add more than $14 billion to the country’s crop production by way of pollination, according to the American Beekeeping Federation. Were it not for honeybees, zucchini, almonds, cherries, blueberries, melons and a number of other crops — most notably apples, here in Virginia — would produce far less each year, if at all.
As a species that relies on fruits and vegetables for survival, we need the honeybee. It’s why the wave of mass deaths we’ve seen among bees in the last decade — from colony collapse disorder, the use of insecticides, habitat destruction or exceedingly dry summers — is especially troubling on a global level. Enter Harbans Bhardwaj, a professor and research scientist running Virginia State University’s new crops program. His new honeybee-buckwheat initiative began accidentally, but his timing couldn’t have been better.
Last year, while experimenting with cover crops for chickpeas, the professor planted 10 acres of buckwheat only to find it swarming with honeybees. A light went on. He saw buckwheat not only as a viable crop for Virginia agriculture, but an attractive nutrient source for honeybees in the colder months, when bees need it most. By bolstering the bees’ available food just before the frost, Bhardwaj, Gilbert and a cluster of other participants hope to provide enough nectar to bolster the hive’s honey supply, which will in turn help the hive survive the cold winter. What began as a large-scale crop experiment designed to bring the state money became a project that could very well save Virginia’s honeybees, and our food supply. This winter, the group will experiment with meadowfoam as another crop for the bees.
“It morphed into: Can we grow some other crops to support honeybees? So we’re looking into that, too,” Bhardwaj says. “If we plant this crop, will it be available at this time and this time and this time, so that honeybees can have some kind of flower they can visit most any time of the year?”
A bonus for the program is, of course, honey. Buckwheat honey is thicker and richer in antioxidants than most varieties, and just before the frost, Bhardwaj and his team will evaluate each participating hive’s honey. Who knows, says the
professor, maybe this could become another Virginia product. “I thought, ‘Hey, as long as I’m doing some buckwheat work, why don’t I see how the buckwheat would help the honeybees forage and what the honey would look like if we produce it in Central Virginia?’ ”
Back on Gilbert’s land, two white boxes sit about 10 feet from me at the edge of a clearing, each holding around 30,000 bees. He keeps two more boxes offsite. Gently pulling a frame from the top reveals hundreds of small, thriving honeybees, and hundreds of honey-filled cells. He figures each hive produces roughly 100 pounds of honey, and his are on the smaller side. Come spring, he’ll double his hives, and he and a number of honey freeloaders will finally sample the byproduct. “It seems to me there’s always a standing line of people who say, ‘I’ll take some free honey!’ ” he laughs.
(Hey, Gilbert, we’ll take some of that honey, too.)