Honeybees are one of many pollinators that play a crucial role in the environment. With colonies collapsing and their populations dwindling, though, gardening experts are promoting native species and addressing the adverse effects of pesticides.
“We’re having a lot of problems keeping honeybees alive. In Pennsylvania alone, we lose about 50 percent of colonies every year,” said Betty Robison, a Master Gardener with the Penn State Extension. “We still haven’t come up with a definitive answer as to why.”
Robison and her husband John also own 33 acres in Scenery Hill, dubbed Robsion Acres, where they have a plant nursery, an expansive flower garden, a fairy trail and several hives of honeybees.
They’ve spent years learning through research, passed-down wisdom and trial-and-error how to best maintain healthy, organic plants and vegetables, and healthy honeybees.
Their take away message, though, is to simply stop using pesticides and herbicides.
“You don’t need to use them,” Betty said. “Our great-grandparents didn’t need them, who do we?”
A number of vegetable plants are grown in their nursery, including tomatoes and peppers.
“We don’t use it, and we get along just fine,” John said, referring to pesticides and regulators that large-scale greenhouses typically use to stunt growth. The regulators, he said, make them consume less water and make them easier to take care of.
But they leave a trace on the food you’re eating, he added.
“That’s why my stuff grows so big,” John said with a laugh. “They hardly stay in the pot.”
“We can grow things just fine without the use of all that, and the hard labor involved in it is good for us as far as exercise,” Betty added.
Betty also noted that when the chemical-laden pesticides are sprayed, even at a distance, honeybees and other insects will land on them.
They don’t know what has or hasn’t been sprayed. Honeybees will take the harmful products back with them to the hives.
“Studies have shown that there are up to 131 different pesticides in honeybee hives. It’s out of control,” she said.
The Robisons instead encourage those who visit their farm, and others interested in learning about the healthy, organic lifestyle, to eliminate harmful products and reintroduce native plant species.
“We need to give them healthy, safe plants and get rid of pesticides,” Betty said.
What to plant?
The Robisons say they’re passionate about passing along their knowledge of pollinator-friendly plants, and even go as far as offering services to go to various locations to assess what plants would be best. They grow dozens of species of greenery and flowers in their nursery and have them available for purchasing.
“Pollinators, including all types of bees, birds and butterflies, are attracted more often to native plants,” Betty said.
On the list of the more popular pollinator plants are Goat’s Beard, rock skullcap, columbines, butterfly weeds and coneflowers, which are all native to Pennsylvania.
“They definitely like the coneflower in the summer,” Betty said, referring to the leafy greens with multi-colored blossoms, similar to Black-Eyed Susans. “They make for a nice landing pad for butterflies.”
In promoting native, flowering species, the Robisons also have large flower beds in their front and back yards. At any given time, dozens of honeybees can be seen bouncing from bloom to bloom, their tiny legs laden with pollen.
The most popular on a recent May afternoon? Blue Forget-me-not flowers.
Starting a flower bed doesn’t have to be difficult or require pesticides. Instead, Betty said grabbing a stack of newspapers and mulch can do wonders.
“The worst thing you can do is spray a general herbicide to kill previous plants,” she said.
She instead suggested taking sheets of newspaper — eight layers thick of the printed newspaper, not the shiney inserts — and laying it on the ground over old plants or grass.
After wetting it and covering it with mulch, it’s good to go, she said. It can also be done in the fall and left to sit over the winter, where a fresh, weed-free bed will be there in the spring.
“There are a lot of alternative, good ways to do things that aren’t too hard,” Betty said. “It just takes some time to learn.”