Don’t buzz through another day without pausing to think about the big job small creatures do for mankind.
Pollinators are important partners to farmers and ranchers in producing the public’s food supply, says a proclamation signed by Gov. Tim Walz marking June 17-23 as Pollinator Week. Pollinators also play a big role in maintaining the health of forests, grasslands and ecosystems.
Robin Fruth-Dugstad, a horticulture professor at Rochester Community and Technical College, said pollinators get a lot of attention in her classes.
“In pretty much anything we do, pollinators are involved,” said Fruth-Dugstad, who has more than 25 years of experience gardening and landscaping.
Gardeners get most credit for advancing pollinator efforts, she said. But farmers are catching onto the movement, too.
“I’m finding that farmers have become more and more aware of it,” said Fruth-Dugstad. “I still often come across farmers who are concerned about us keeping our pollinators.”
She said that’s especially true for the many farmers who are dependent on pollinators for their crops. Farmers that grow more high-intensity vegetable crops rely heavily on pollinators, she said, as well as the orchards industry.
There are also industries built solely from the work of pollinators, like the honey industry.
Johnston Honey is a small business based in Rochester that produces Prairie Wild Flower Honey. The honey is packaged in squeeze bottles or in fancier glass bottles and then sold in stores and online. The business also makes lip balm, candles, soap and lotion.
“The number of opportunities to be in quality locations has increased,” said Tom Owens, owner of Johnston Honey. “There are also a lot more people keeping bees as a hobby or small business.”
The uptick came as a surprise to Owens and he said it’s made for a more competitive local honey market. Most of the businesses are small like Johnston Honey, operated by Owens and his wife, Heidi. He does all the bee work in the spring and she helps bottle, label and ship honey.
For the extraction, which Owens calls the “hard labor” of the process, he hires five people for the weeklong task. In that time they’ll get about 8,000 pounds of honey.
Johnston Honey started in 1997 by Don Johnston, who wanted bees to increase pollination at his hobby farm where he grew fruit and had a large perennial garden.
Owens took over the business in 2016 and started to make connections in the area where he could secure land that was right for his hives.
“I approach private landowners that have locations with water, access and good grasslands,” said Owens for his hives. “In exchange, I give them honey at the end of the year.”
Hives have to be located in areas with an established perimeter of pollination, said Owens. He said there should be from 5 to 30 acres of pollinator habitat surrounding the hives. His most recently placed hive is next to 40 acres of land converted from crops to grassland.
When landowners ask him about what they can plant to help bees, he suggests a type of prairie wildflower or clover mix.
Although the honey bee industry in the Midwest faces no greater challenge than making it through winter, Owens said insecticides are a major hurdle. He’s moved several hives in the past that were getting sprayed from adjacent fields.
“The hives would look pretty healthy but they just weren’t producing much honey at all,” said Owens of the hives affected by pesticides.
He now avoids putting hives near bigger farm operations.
“I just think it’s part of farmers’ common practice now so it’d be a losing battle for me,” said Owens of pesticides.
Fruth-Dugstad said if landowners are going to use insecticides, they should do so in the morning when pollinators aren’t flying. But she said the biggest effort they discuss with RCTC students is diversification.
“When you talk to researchers, that’s probably the number one thing we need to do is be more diversified in our plantings,” said Fruth-Dugstad.
Diversification means that gardeners should provide pollinators with plants that bloom at different times, providing a steady supply of food.
Pollinators were considered by Cara Passentino of Rochester, who recruited her two sons, Kellen, 13, and Dante, 9, to help shop for plants at Sargent’s Gardens North last week.
“On Pinterest I’ve pinned boards of plants that will repel mosquitoes and plants that will attract pollinators,” said Passentino.
Kellen was interested in the same cause, and while hunting down a plant on his mom’s list, he also consulted a staff member for her recommendations.
Lavender is a good option, said employee Beth Philbrick. Nepeta, Monarda (bee balm) and Agastache are also solid choices for pollinators.
“Any native plant is good,” said Philbrick and more customers are asking for them.
“There’s been an increase of interest from gardeners and the general public,” said Philbrick of pollinators. “Absolutely there’s an uptick.”