Bee Conservation

This blog post is written by Tom Bench from Hollow Tree Honey.

My introduction to real honey began with my first beehive. I kept a hive on the top of a hill behind my grandmother’s house. I’d open up the hive weekly filled with fascination for the bees and hopes of an epic honey harvest. I’d heard that a hive could produce over 100 lbs. of surplus honey, but it was a much smaller amount that changed my entire perception of honey and the course of my life. During an inspection in the late spring, I snuck a taste of honey under my protective veil and the flavors and aroma were like nothing I had ever experienced before. You could taste the delicate flavors from the variety of flowers the bees were gathering nectar from. As the season continued, I noticed the honey from the spring was light and sweet while the fall honey was darker and had a richer kind of sweetness.

After a decade of beekeeping and bottling honey, the most frequent question I get is “How are the bees doing?” It’s usually followed by a comment like “I don’t see that many bees in my yard anymore.” It’s true, bee populations have been declining while the demand for their pollination continues to increase. There are about 100 food crops that are dependent on bee pollination.

Almonds, apples, peaches, broccoli, blueberries, strawberries, tomatoes, cherries, squashes, melons, cranberries, and many others rely on bees for pollination. What would be left in the produce section of the grocery stores if bees were not around to pollinate? Think root vegetables and anything wind pollinated like corn. So since our early days at the farmers’ markets we’ve been involved in promoting the health of our local bees. Here are three simple things you can do to help the bees!

It couldn’t get any easier to support the bees than by enjoying the golden sweet nectar they gather. When you support small local honey producers you are allowing them to continue being stewards of the bees.

There is an enormous amount of work that goes into every jar of honey. A single bee will make about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. So it takes the life’s work of about 2,000 bees to produce a pound of honey. They visit about 2 million flowers and travel a cumulative 50,000 miles in order to make that pound of honey. So lick your spoon/knife when you’re done spreading honey on your favorite treat so that every drop is enjoyed.

Besides tasting absolutely delicious, honey also has medicinal benefits. Research has confirmed that raw honey is more effective at reducing inflammation and suppressing coughing for colds in children versus over the counter cold medicine. Honey naturally produces a peroxide or compound that is antibacterial. So in addition to cough and colds it is also used to treat and heal 1st degree burns in the hospitals.

While there are dozens of questions you could ask a beekeeper to give you insights on the quality of their honey there are two that will tell you most of what you need to know. The first is if the honey is heated during the harvesting and bottling process. Heat degrades the flavor and nutrients of the honey. Hollow Tree Honey is never heated and contains all of the flavors, nutrients, enzymes, and probiotics that are naturally found in the honey. You’re likely to also find this quality of honey at farmers’ markets or from a backyard beekeeper in your neighborhood.

The second question to ask is where their hives are located. Many Utah companies get their honey from the surrounding states because Utah is not a big honey producer. Hollow Tree Honey is harvested from hives located in Utah County, Davis County, and Summit County. In some cases our hives are a couple miles from the grocery stores we sell our honey in!

2. Plant Flowers

Bees need flowers to gather nectar and pollen to be healthy and raise the next generation of pollinators. That’s why we give a packet of wildflower seeds when our customers buy a jar of honey. The mix of flowers creates a steady stream of blooming flowers so the bees will always have nectar and pollen to support them.

The toughest time for bees in Utah is in the heat of the summer. When the spring flowers fade and the mountains and hills turn brown, it leaves little for the bees to eat. I’ve seen them bring back the red nectar in hummingbird feeders due to the lack of flowers blooming in the summer. So the most critical time to fill the gap of available food is to plant flowers that bloom during July and August. Lavender is a great perennial to plant that will produce nectar during this time. You can find a full list of bee feeding plants in an article written by USU’s Bee Lab.

3. Give Them a Roof Over Their Heads

The bees need habitat to raise baby bees. The best way to do this is actually not to become a backyard beekeeper. Honeybees are only one species of bees in the Beehive State. There are over 900 species of what are called native bees or solitary bees. They come in all shapes, colors, and sizes and are vital for pollination. They mostly live in sandy locations in the ground or in small straw like cavities. They are called solitary bees because they do not live in large colonies like honey bees, they are single bees that build a “nest” in a hollow tube or they dig a tunnel in the ground. So one easy way to promote native bee habitat is by leaving an area of your yard bare. It’s best for this place to get plenty of sun to help the bees stay warm. The other way to create habitat is to put up a native bee nesting box in your yard. This is just a box that is filled with hollow tubes or reeds that the bees will lay eggs in. The diameter of the inside can vary from ⅜ of an inch to 1/16 of an inch. The different sizes will attract different bee species.

One of the best parts is that the bees are considered stingless. They do not have a huge food resource to defend and so they are very docile. Although they do have the ability to sting, it is extremely rare and many researchers work with them throughout their careers and never get stung. I’ve enjoyed watching the Mason orchard bees and leafcutter bees throughout the season make my little nesting box their home. You’ll be amazed at how quickly these nesting sites get colonized. A single box can provide enough habitat for several hundred bees to be born. Your garden and the surrounding area will be thoroughly pollinated.

John Muir said it best, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” My interest in bees and honey lead to my understanding of how important honeybees are to our food system. I then discovered the thousands of species of native bees and the vital role they all play in pollinating our food and flowering crops. I hope you’ll do something this season to help our local bees because your backyard is the key to a thriving bee population. If we all do a little, the impact will be enormous and we can reverse the decline of our treasured pollinators.

Tom joined the Taste of Harmons Podcast recently to talk about bees, and you can listen to that here.

Tom Bench grew up in the Sandy, Utah and studied Environmental and Sustainability Studies at the University of Utah. He was most interested in the environmental benefits (and taste) of local food. In 2012 he began keeping bees and was obsessed with the complicated social structure of bees and how amazing fresh honey from his hive tasted. He founded the University of Utah Beekeepers in 2013, which created a resource for students and faculty to observe honeybees and learn how to care for them. That same year Tom started Hollow Tree Honey. He began by selling at local farmer’s markets and eventually moved into local grocery stores as the only unheated and unfiltered honey. Local bee conservation has always been at the heart of the company’s mission. With every jar purchased, Hollow Tree Honey gives a packet of pollinator plant seeds away for customers to plant and feed the bees. 

In 2018 he founded the Hollow Tree Honey Foundation to increase local bee populations through community workshops. So far, over a thousand people have attended native bee box workshops and they have helped several hundred people build and install native bee boxes that create habitats for local bees. He currently lives in Sandy with his wife and three young children.