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Photo: the Finnish Beekeepers´ Association

    Honeybees - the best help for a gardener

    Anneli Kankare


Have your strawberries lost their sweetness? Do your apples taste sour? Did you stop growing cucumbers because they did not produce a lot and what they did produce were crooked?

There are handy products for the average gardener. Almost all plants have their own fertilizers and all insects have their own pesticides. Every spring gardeners are encouraged by new seed catalogs and by their supply of seeds controlled for germination. There is one aspect of wise gardening which is yearly addressed. Have you noticed around you that the amount of pollinators who are vital for plant productivity are decreasing every year?


Cooperation between plants and pollinators brings benefits

One hundred years ago wild and natural pollinators were abundant. In the 1800's there were plenty of ditches and road shoulders. Natural flora and insects had a lot of space for living. Subsurface drainage systems, modern and extra efficient agriculture have changed the countryside. Extensive fields with just one plant type and the use of pesticides are common these days.

About 80% of the flowering plants are pollinated by insects. In pollination pollen is transported from the anther of the stamen to the stigma of the pistil in the same or another plant. Fertilization is needed for plants to grow seeds.

Pollen is rich in protein. Plants produce nectar when they are most fertile. These two agents together ensure fertilization. Both pollen and nectar are used by insects and their larvae for food. Nectaries are located so that insects feeding on them will be covered with pollen thus transporting it to other flowers of the same species. This cooperation ensures regeneration for both. Yellow and black wasps enjoy sweet nectar, but they feed their brood with small insects. Wasps destroy a vast number of insects destructive to plants.


Lack of pollinators in the spring

It is difficult to increase the amount of wild and natural pollinators. Their population varies a lot. Only the queen of the wasp and bumblebee colonies hibernates. In early May the queen starts laying eggs and raising her brood. Due to this there are not a lot of wild and natural pollinators in the early summer. A bumblebee or a wasp buzzing in different flowers is usually the queen collecting food for the first larvae.

This is not the case in a honeybee colony where over 15,000 worker bees spend the winter months with the queen. In the spring the number of bees increases fast. From April the queen lays over 1000 eggs each day. The brood needs fresh nectar and pollen to feed on and flowers close to a bee colony are buzzing with bees from early summer. In midsummer there are already at least 80,000 worker bees in a strong colony. The honey- bee is the most effective pollinating insect. There are a lot of them from early summer and colonies can be transported to places where plants depend on insect pollination.


Importance of honeybees is increasing

The importance of bees as pollinating insects has increased all over the world. It is estimated that a quarter of human food depends on bee pollination. There are about 42,000 bee colonies in Finland and this is not enough. At least 4,000 more colonies are needed in agriculture alone for seed, fruit and berry production. Honey provides income for the beekeeper but in the national economy it is only a by-product. The value of bee pollination is 6Š8 times greater than the monetary value of the honey harvest.

One worker bee makes over ten foraging trips daily and on each trip visits dozens, even hundreds of flowers. During the summer one bee colony makes millions of foraging trips and pollinates billions of seeds. The closer to the plants pollinated by bees the colonies are placed, the greater the crop.

The best distance is less than 500 meters. Bees are loyal to flower species. They seek the best nectar available close by and forage on it. A hectare of clover (Trifolium) has tens of millions of flowers that depend on insect pollination. When enough bee colonies are placed close to the area, the amount of seeds increases by 20-30 per cent. A field of turnip rape (Brassica oleifera) pollinated by bees produces 10-20 per cent more seeds whose oil content is also superior.


Researchers are interested in bees' foraging

There have been studies on the amount and quality of crops pollinated by bees. In the studies, areas close to bee colonies are compared to areas depending on other wild pollinators. The yield of crops is compared. Often a third area is included in the study. This area is isolated from insects during the day. This comparison area is thus pollinated by plants themselves or by wind.

Domestic crops close to bee colonies increase an average of 25 per cent and commercial crops 20 per cent. Results in herb cultivation have been encouraging. Herbal subspecies favoured by bees are, for example caraway (Carum carvi), hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) and oregano.

There have been similar studies on wild berries and the increase in crops has been remarkable. There was a study done at Häme Polytechnic College in 1996 which studied the effects of pollination on crops of blueberries and lingonberries (Vaccinium myrtillus and Vaccinium vitis-idaea). Harvests in the study area tripled for blueberries and lingonberries increased five-fold. In addition the berries were also bigger and tastier.

Beekeepers know these facts through their everyday work with the bees. Berries that grow close to beehives are the biggest and most beautiful and they tempt beekeepers on their way back home from beekeeping work. A beekeeper in northern Finland has transported beehives to swamp land for the two weeks when cloudberries (Rubus chamaemorus) bloom. The bees collect over ten kilos of golden brown honey, with a strong aroma during this time. Due to bees, cloudberries are so dense they practically form a rug appealing to berry pickers. The Cloudberry Honey of this area has won the annual award three years in a row for the best honey in Finland.


Bees are sought after for pollinating work

The innovative gardener sprays honey water on berry blossoms. It is fashionable to plant seeds of traditional plants. Lucerne (Medicago sativa), catchfly (Lychnis viscaria), harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) have re-emerged pleasing all insects, not to mention beautiful butterflies. Even small areas like this create "nectar-alleys" which attract insects to the garden

The best way to improve your crop is to get a couple of beehives. In our northern location, bees are domesticated animals, who need the helping hand of a human to survive the winter. Bees stay in their hive over the 6-7 winter months. They collect tightly in the center of the hive and by moving their wings create heat which in the center of this formation can reach +30 degrees Celsius even when on the outside it is -30 degrees Celsius.

There is plenty of wild nature and excellent unutilized fields in Finland. There is a high demand for Finnish honey, nature's need for pollination increases, new subsidiary sources of livelihood are developing in connection with traditional agriculture. About one third of our strawberry and black, red and white currant fields are located in eastern Finland. There are about the same number of beehives as there are hectares of berry fields, that is about 3,000. The number of berry growers who can ensure crops with bee pollination is far too few. Good seed production of natural plants also depends on this. Plants produce seeds that are bigger and more fertile. Bees safeguard nature's diversity.


Honey, a healthy natural productof nature made by honeybees

It is estimated that bees visit 5-7 million flowers in order to produce one kilo of honey. Bees utilize their glands to produce enzymes which convert nectar into honey. The end result is a well preserved, bacteria-destroying, easily digestable, readily energized food, which has been used by humans for at least 15,000 years. Information on honey's health benefits is based on research and practical experience over the centuries.

Each flower gives its flavour and colour to honey. The colour of honey ranges from almost white to nearly black. For example, raspberry and clover honeys are almost white and their consistency is soft, whereas heather honey is reddish brown with a jelly-like consistence. Honey collected from different flowers crystallizes according to the type of nectar. Turnip rape honey is yellowish-white and rich in glucose and will crystallize in a couple of days. Willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium) honey is richer in fructose and can stay runny over one year.

There are many other different kinds of natural sugars in honey, which have been converted by bees into a more digestable form than ordinary cane sugar. Due to this diversity of sugars and aromas, it is an excellent flavour enhancer in food. It is worth trying flavouring meat dishes or fish baked in the oven with honey.

In addition to these natural sugars there are micronutrients, minerals and some vitamins in honey. Honey's health benefits are based on the amount of enzymes bees have transferred into honey. Some nectars require more work from bees to become honey and thus this honey contains more enzymes. The most common honey in Finland is multi-floral honey and it is rich in enzymes. In addition, the best quality honeys based on the amount of enzymes and other characteristics include many one-floral honeys, for example heather, thyme and lime tree. A beekeeper can also specialize in the other natural products obtainable from beehives: pollen, beeswax and propolis. Their production and utilization have started well in Finland, too.

Our self-sufficiency rate in domestic honey in the best of years is only 60-70%, the average national honey harvest is 1,8 million kilos. There is much demand because consumers appreciate Finnish honey which is produced in an unpolluted environment.

The author of this article is Anneli Kankare, Consumer Adviser, Finnish Beekeepers' Association