Seventeen years ago, beekeepers began noticing something extremely alarming: colony collapse disorder, in which entire hives of adult honeybees would simply…disappear. The situation led many to a new awareness of the fact that our very survival depends on insects. In 2008, about 60 percent of honeybee colonies were collapsing. The situation has improved, but not because a simple solution has been found; one study looked at 61 possible stressors and found that no single one could be blamed. Pesticides, pathogens, habitat loss, and climate change all play a role. Another complicating factor is the narrow genetic base of North American honeybees, a non-native species first imported from Europe in the 1600s.
Thankfully, the honeybee situation has leveled off a bit as beekeepers and researchers work to find solutions, but colony collapse continues to be a problem, worse in some years than others. And the honeybees aren’t even the whole story—not even close. Pollination, the thing they do for us that’s even more important than the sticky golden sweetness they produce, is a group effort: beetles, flies, ants, moths, butterflies, bumblebees, solitary bees, and wasps all do their part, too. Over 200,000 species are involved in pollinating, almost all of them insects. And aside from the genetics issue, the problems listed above impact every one of them.
From a farmer’s point of view, pollinators are crucial allies. Making them feel at home is a big part of raising any flowering plant, a category that includes the vast majority of vegetables and all fruits.
In springtime, a healthy farm is alive with buzzing wings and crawling things—and farmers walk a fine line, making things as hospitable as possible while not sacrificing entire crops to their appetites. Elizabeth Ryan, owner of several Hudson Valley farms including Stone Ridge Orchard and Breezy Hill Orchard in Staatsburg, says it all works together. “I grow a lot of pollen crops that require bee pollination,” she says. “And one of the things that you honor deeply if you’re studying fruit production is understanding the entire ecosystem, the wide and narrow of it. If you’re a fruit grower, you’re thinking about this all the time. Bees have to have a friendly environment,
“We’re on the cutting edge of techniques like biocontrol, which involves tactics like supporting and enhancing the habitat for the beneficial insects.”
– Elizabeth Ryan, pomologist, local farmer
so we’re very pro-pollinator. And we’re not merely concerned with pollinators, either. It’s the entire ecosystem that you have to uphold, support, honor, and elevate: the birds and the bees, the spiders and the mycorrhizae.” As a pomologist with a graduate degree from Cornell and a lifelong grower, Ryan knows exactly what she’s talking about. “When I began farming in the Hudson Valley 42 years ago, I swore off herbicides, period; we went cold turkey,” she says.
“Using herbicide is a pretty standard practice in conventional farming, and I don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing anyone—all growers have to make very complicated decisions for very complicated reasons. And in general, the Northeast houses some of the most forward-looking and proactive sustainable growers in the country.”
That’s certainly true here in the Hudson Valley, where our farms range from legacy to newborn operations and carry a lot of the weight of an extremely large and hungry population just a few miles to the south. A New York State apple crop relies on the services of around 30,000 honeybee colonies to produce its deliciousness. When colony collapse first emerged as a problem, beehives, beekeeping classes, and new concern for the welfare of the pollinators flowered here.
A healthy farm is alive with buzzing wings and crawling things—and farmers walk a fine line, making things as hospitable as possible while not sacrificing entire crops to their appetites.
From a farmer’s point of view, pollinators are crucial allies.
“Here in the Hudson Valley, partnering with Cornell, we’re on the cutting edge of techniques like biocontrol,” says Ryan, “which involves tactics like supporting and enhancing the habitat for the beneficial insects. We’ve done releases of beneficial insects such as ladybugs and lacewings, which consume the insects that are more problematic. We look for the ways in which natural systems have evolved and adapted for success, and strive to support that.”
Fruit farmers depend on a narrow window of time during which their trees are blossoming, usually in late April or early May. “We only need five percent of the orchard’s blossoms to be pollinated to get a good crop,” says Ryan, “but without that…It’s become pretty much universal practice: Nobody sprays their orchard while the bees are flying. Growers in general are very thoughtful folks; we’re in those orchards every day, and no matter what their production practices, there’s a finely tuned awareness of the bees.” Ryan says beekeeping culture used to be even more robust in the region. “We had immigrant beekeepers from Poland and Ukraine and Italy, doing things old school, honoring the bees. I can remember when there were 10 beekeepers on my road alone. Honey was a cottage industry.
Come on July 22nd for a Pollinator Masquerade Ball in the Orchard.
Ryan says beekeeping culture used to be even more robust in the region. “We had immigrant beekeepers from Poland and Ukraine and Italy, doing things old school, honoring the bees. I can remember when there were 10 beekeepers on my road alone. Honey was a cottage industry. A lot of those beekeepers have passed, and they haven’t been fully replaced by new ones.” Today, large-scale growing operations often contract with beekeepers to bring in hives at pollination time.
Ryan herself used to keep hives at Breezy Hill, 50 of them at one point. She stopped about 30 years ago and realized it hardly mattered at her scale. “You’d still walk into the orchard and hear the wonderful buzz, see bumblebees and wasps at work. It’s a magical feeling, pollination time—a fertile and sacred time.” The magic keeps happening. Studies from both Cornell and Hawthorne Valley have identified Ryan’s orchards as containing the highest and most diverse native pollinator populations in the region, counting 38 different species in all. “When we stopped beekeeping and using commercial bees, we knew we had to pay a lot more attention to native pollinators.”
To learn more about supporting native pollinators—besides the basic lore of increasing your yard’s overall biodiversity and decreasing its toxicity—visit Xerxes.org, online home of the Xerxes Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Local beekeeping expertise can be found at the Ulster County Beekeepers Association (ulsterbees.org.) and on the Pollinator Support page in the Gardening section at the website of the Cornell Cooperative Extension (https://ulster.cce.cornell.edu/gardening/pollinator-support). Getting to know these tiny neighbors is bound to enhance your joy in the music of their buzz—and inspire the gratitude they’re due with every bite of locally grown deliciousness.
Come celebrate pollinators on July 22nd for Stone Ridge Orchard and Circle Creative Collective’s POLLINATOR MASQUERADE BALL. Come dance under the stars dressed as birds, flowers, bees, butterflies, and nature spirits of all kinds. Either wear your own masks, crowns, and costumes created at home, join us at one of Circle’s mask making workshops, or come to Circle’s Handmade Costume Market to find costumes made by local artists using upcycled and honorably harvested materials.