A bubbly Chatham Park pollinator program looks set to expand in Pittsboro

Hidden along the highway is a community of hundreds of thousands at work.

Their office, near US Hwy. Business 64 East is nestled between holly trees and blueberry bushes, and their busy schedule keeps them limited to a few tasks – so blink too fast and you could miss an appearance.

Who are these workers? Honeybees at Pittsboro’s Water Recovery Center.

The bees are at the heart of a series of pollinator gardens that Chatham Park has planned, the first of which was installed at the WRC last summer. A second beehive installation was placed at Mosaic in Chatham Park this spring.

“What we’re trying to do is establish these pollinator stations all over Chatham Park to provide coverage for honeybees throughout the development,” said Bill Oestereich, a property manager at Preston Development, the developers of Chatham Park. “By the time we’re done, we’ll have these stations everywhere.”

A pollinator garden — called a “pollination station” by Jody Moore, the project’s NC master beekeeper — aims to attract bees, butterflies, birds, moths, and other insects with the goal of supporting pollinators by providing them with a source of nectar and pollen.

The WRC’s garden has eight beehives — each containing 30,000 to 40,000 bees, depending on the time of year — that are shaped to mimic a hollow tree trunk. In addition to hives, Chatham Park has also implemented native pollinator apartments such as birdhouses for bees and other pollinators.

‘Small safe spaces’

The bees at both sites were raised by Moore, the owner of Rocky River Bee Farm and the former president of the Chatham County Beekeepers’ Association. Moore, who has been keeping bees since 2000, transported the bees from his 15-acre farm south of Pittsboro.

For Moore, beekeeping started out as an “expensive hobby” but eventually turned into a full-time gig. Over a decade ago, he founded Rocky River Bee Farm; now, through the registered company, he raises bees, sells local honey, provides consultancy services to local beekeepers and even performs bee extractions – the most recent was a few weeks ago from the ledge of a roof in Mosaic.

In the case of the pollinator stations in Chatham Park, Moore appreciates the inclusion of native plants in the gardens.

Honeybees also typically have a range of a few miles from their hive, Moore said, a factor taken into account when planning the locations for the stations.

“It’s great that they get a chance for these pollinators that would otherwise be all but wiped out,” he said. “And it’s pretty cool that they have these little safe spaces in the area to thrive.”

The idea of ​​including the stations in Chatham Park came about before the COVID-19 pandemic started, Oestereich said. He said the pollinator stations go hand in hand with a set of core beliefs in Chatham Park — namely the idea of ​​”stewardship.”

“We wanted to see if in a project as large as Chatham Park, where we’re developing nearly 8,000 acres, we could do something on a large scale that would make a difference to pollinators and honeybees,” Oestereich said.

Bees as pollinators

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, one in three bites of food a person ingests is due to the work of pollinators. And within that group, human-managed honeybee colonies are the main pollinators, responsible for increasing the country’s crop values ​​by more than $15 million annually.

Managing honey bee colonies is not an easy task. Rocky River Bee Farm has about a dozen bee yards spread across the county, and Moore makes regular visits to each.

In the spring he goes into the hives every seven days to check that the bees are not swarming – a natural process by which a honeybee colony reproduces to split into more colonies, but something that beekeepers try to avoid because the bees often don’t. do not survive due to lack of food or attack by vermin, and because they can move into someone’s home.

While visiting the WRC pollinator station, Moore carefully pulled frames from one of the cabinets to show the honeybees at work.

The drones and worker bees remained clustered close together, but were clearly busy, crawling up and down the plastic honeycomb foundation to perform their duties. An onlooker might see larvae tucked like tiny grains of rice in cells (the only one that remained hidden was the elusive queen bee).

Spending time in the garden with Moore, it’s clear he was in his element, mixing up facts about bees and probably answering basic questions with an infinite supply of patience. But it is also clear that he has a lot of respect for the pollinators.

“Going into a hive, and just to understand how much is going on in there, and that it’s all coordinated — there are so many individuals, but, ‘Wow, they work as a single unit,'” he said. “It’s really mind-blowing. And the more you learn about it, the more you realize what you don’t know.”

A difficult time

At the moment the bees are in a summer scarcity, a dry period between spring and autumn bloomers when there is a shortage of nectar sources.

Late summer is a tricky time to be a beekeeper, Moore said, as he needs to keep enough food for the bees, manage a high number of mites and make sure the bees being raised now are strong enough to keep the bees large. to survive through the winter.

Rebekah Gunn, a veterinary pathologist and the president of the Chatham County Beekeepers Association, said two of the biggest challenges for honeybees are varroa mites and a lack of feed.

The mites, first identified in North Carolina in 1980, have contributed significantly to reducing honeybee populations in the state, according to the NC Cooperative Extension. The reddish-brown parasites have wiped out the colonies of wild honeybees.

Moore uses biological treatments in his colonies and implements “Integrated Pest Management” with Chatham Park’s hives. IPM is applied through multiple tactics to address pests and minimize risk, keeping sustainability and effectiveness in mind, states the NC Cooperative Extension.

When it comes to a lack of feed, Gunn said honeybees are “phenomenal” at regulating their own environment in a hive, but they still need food no matter where in the country they are.

“I mean, it doesn’t matter if you’re a bee in Alaska, or you’re a bee in Florida, or you’re a bee in North Carolina, or some other pollinator — you need a food source,” Gunn said.

On an individual scale, she said people don’t often realize that their green, manicured lawns or knockout rose bushes — common in many suburban front yards — have no nutritional value for pollinators (and in the case of lawns, contain many harmful chemicals).

Instead, Gunn recommends growing native plants, which provide food and support for pollinators.

Pollinator gardens also increase public awareness, she believes.

“It’s amazing to me to see the unquoted ‘general public’ or non-beekeepers walking at Chatham Mills [which has its own pollinator garden]she said. scary. And so I think people are becoming aware of pollinators around us.”

For people who want to keep bees, it’s important to be aware of the work involved and to provide regular maintenance to the colonies, she said. From harvesting too much honey to keeping too many bees in one place, Gunn said sometimes little is done about managing bees “that’s basically what bees would prefer to do.”

“More and more people are getting involved with it, which is both good and bad,” she said.

Ultimately, it’s critical to consider native pollinators and a balance between quantity and quality when it comes to honeybee management, she said.

Pollinator Gardens

When designing the WRC’s pollinator garden, the project’s landscape architects gathered a lot of information produced by the NC Cooperative Extension, Oestereich said.

Debbie Roos is an agricultural extension officer at the Chatham County Center of NC Cooperative Extension. Moore calls her the “go-to person” in the area when it comes to pollinator gardens.

Roos, who began work on a pollinator garden at Chatham Mills in Pittsboro more than 14 years ago, now has more than 225 species of pollinator plants in the demonstration garden, which is maintained by volunteers and open to visitors for tours. At her website, growingsmallfarms.ces.ncsu.edu, you’ll find information on everything from beekeeping and pollinator conservation to pest management and crop production.

Roos participated in early talks about the pollinator stations in Chatham Park, but was not involved in the development of the project. She said she is happy to see Chatham Park in the gardens.

“Absolutely, I mean, if they build out all these places, we want them to be able to benefit the wildlife, especially considering they had to demolish their habitat to build Chatham Park into,” Roos said.

She also emphasized the educational aspect of pollinator gardens. For the past 15 years of her work in this field, she has largely worked towards one goal: to enable people, whether on an individual or large scale, to incorporate native plants and pollinators into their environment.

“So that’s the idea of ​​it, seeing how we can help,” Rose said. “Even in urban settings, whether it’s your backyard or in a wildlife area, or downtown Pittsboro, it’s obviously important how we can provide flowers, nests, shelter and pesticide protection, and how we can provide all that for pollinators. .”

Everyone can make a difference to support pollinators, she said.

“It doesn’t have to be huge. You can make a difference by planting milkweeds in your yard to help monarchs, that sort of thing,” Roos said.

Similarly, Moore said homeowners can do several things to help pollinators: plant different types of native plants (such as fruit trees, ornamentals and flower gardens), avoid pesticides or limit use to late evenings, and have a birdbath.

“You’d be amazed at how many honeybees you could attract to a birdbath,” he said. “And that really helps them at this time of year.”

Ultimately, the WRC plans to organize educational tours of the center and pollinator station. In the past year, Oestereich said they were able to harvest 248 pounds of honey from the beehives, which they distributed at brokerage events and to business partners. At some point, Chatham Park’s developers will sell the honey harvested from the hives, but Oestereich said they also want to avoid competing with Moore.

Preston Development is also in talks with Strata Solar to potentially install Chatham Park’s third pollinator station.

Oestereich, who worked closely with Moore on the project, said he didn’t have as deep a knowledge of honeybees before the program as he does now. Over time, the bees “[his] family.”

It seems that the aim of visitors to Chatham Park’s gardens is to develop a similar appreciation for the pollinators around them.

“It’s an infinite sense of wonder,” Moore said. “It’s this really fascinating thing.”

Reporter Maydha Devarajan can be reached at mdevarajan@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @maydhadevarajan.

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