23 George Hansen – Beekeeper Built Bee Habitat (in English)

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Speaker 1: From the Oregon State University Extension Service, this is Pollination, a podcast that tells the stories of researchers, land managers, and concerned citizens making bold strides to improve the health of pollinators. I'm your host, Dr. Adoni Melopoulos, assistant professor in pollinator health in the Department of Horticulture. Well, Pollination took to the road last week and we headed over to Foothills Honey Company, just southeast of Portland, where I got to meet with George Hansen. And the occasion for this visit is that George, for the past 10 years, as you'll hear in this episode, has been hard at work trying to establish pollinator habitat in Western Oregon. This is all really remarkable that he can take on this job of learning how to establish pollinator habitat because Foothills Honey Company has no small operation.

It runs about 5,000 honeybee colonies across three states. And on top of this, George is an extremely active member of the beekeeping community. He's been promoting the industry's interests as past president of the American Bee Federation. He's a trustee on the foundation for the preservation of the honeybee. He's on the board of the Bee & Form Partnership and also working with the Bees & Butterfly Habitat Fund, which we're going to hear a lot more about in this episode. He's also really important in my mind because he was represented by the beekeepers on Oregon's Pollinator Health Task Force, which sort of created the pollinator health program here at OSU. He also represents beekeepers on the Honeybee Health Coalition. So we literally could talk to George about a dozen things, but today we focused on the challenges and opportunities of getting flowers and pollinator habitat into the landscape in a place like Western Oregon.

I hope you enjoy the episode. All right, I'm really excited to be here with George Hansen at Foothill Honey Company. Honey Company is in your office and we're going to talk about planting for pollinators. So thanks for joining us, George.

Sure. So, you know, we've had people on the show who've talked about planting for pollinators. We've never really had a beekeeper talk about that. What kind of... How did you get interested in establishing plantings for pollinators and, yeah, where'd you get started and what motivated you to get started?

Speaker 2: I think the first thing we did at our home place, we had a couple of acres next to the road that we couldn't really use for anything. It's too soft and couldn't drive trucks on it and this and that. And if we did nothing to it, it seemed to want to grow nothing but blackberries and scotch brooms. So I'd been doing some pollination work for a flower seed company and was able to get some seed from that company and, you know, had a tractor and kind of tilled it in my way. And I'm not much of a farmer, but at any rate, and planted over a couple of years, had some success with some easy-to-grow plants that flowered and that bees, they were annuals in this case.

And I work it up the next year. But bees worked them and it isn't to make any honey out of it or anything like that. It was partly just to control the tendency of that piece of property to just go to heck.

And on one hand, on the other hand, it was something that people driving by would almost always do a double take and look at and it was nice to see.

Speaker 1: Okay, so three things really. You had an invasive plant that you really wanted, you needed to deal with. You had a grower who already had seed and you had to grow that plant and you had a piece of land that was not really that productive. You didn't have any kind of use for it. That's a good synopsis.

Speaker 2: And what have you learned from this? I mean, there must have been, what, when did you start doing this and what were sort of your first lessons in this?

Speaker 2: I think maybe 10 years or more ago. I really can't remember. We've tried a bunch of different varieties because I don't have a lot of time and for this, it has to be easy to do and not completely foolproof. But so, you know, I do want it to be something that the bees are active on and doesn't take a lot of maintenance. So I've tried a bunch of things. That seed company does grow dozens and dozens of different varieties I've watched too, you know, which ones the bees work and which ones look like they, you know, meet our needs.

And so we've tried some stuff, didn't work and other stuff, you know, so we, you know, we've settled on a few things. Right now, we're raising quite a bit of clover, crimson clover mostly, but we're continuing to, you know, that's really a spectacular blooming field. And it's good for the soil and all of that. So we do some of that, but then we also raise a few plots of half an acre or more of just some simple-to-grow flowers.

Speaker 1: Tell us about some of those flowers. We were just walking outside the office here. There's a beautiful plenty of cosmos and bachelor's buttons. Tell us about some of the flowers that you like. Right.

Speaker 2: So some of the old style, old fashioned flowers are simple to grow. They sprout readily. They seem to be relatively drought-resistant. We've been pretty well taken with the facility as well. Sprouts readily grow quickly and beat the weeds to blooming height. So those are three that are really pretty, pretty good. And as well as the crimson clover, which I think is a good start. It'll help to clean a field up and you'll find out if you have big problems with grass and other stuff, which might have to take more care in prep.

Speaker 1: You know, we've talked with some other people about site prep, and it seems to be a really important feature. What has worked for you in terms of site prep?

Speaker 2: Well, if you're working with a piece of ground that has a lot of sod and grass in it, that's very, very difficult without an herbicide. Some people say, well, you could burn it. Well, I don't think in the Willama Valley, you're going to get a permit to burn the surface. So an herbicide, almost for sure, you can try tilling it.

And that's what we've been doing. Just repeat tilling and let the sun do the killing. But it's just amazing how persistent the weeds are, especially grasses that spread with rhizomes. So I know that people who do this are much better at it than I am, and maybe have more likelihood of using herbicides successfully and responsibly, they will very often tell you to not necessarily do any tilling whatsoever because that can cause more problems. But my naive way was I thought, well, in my garden, I would dig it and turn all that over and all that. So I was using a tiller. But if you can do an herbicide kill and then do no-till planting, that is where the most success for the longest period happens. Now, if you cannot bring yourself to use an herbicide, then you need to it's a lot harder. It's a lot harder to fight with the weeds because those seeds are there. And every time you turn the soil over, you bring up another batch of seeds, they'll stay there for years and years.

Speaker 1: I think we had Jessica Cruz from the Zerces Society on one of the episodes, she said there are more, the weed seeds, there's no end to them in a plot of soil. Right.

Speaker 2: And if you're starting with something that has some blackberries on it already, maybe you cut back a thicket and you figure you're going to build a head row or just a border or something like that. Man, blackberries are really hard to eradicate by just digging them out. And every one of those blackberries is full of seeds in there and the birds move them around. And so those are some serious obstacles to success.

Speaker 1: Well, let's take a quick break to regroup and talk a little bit. But what I would like to talk about when we come back is, as a beekeeper, you're on the other side of it where you're hoping that land managers or you keep your bees adopt some of these practices. So let's take a break and come back and talk about what some of those obstacles in a place like Western Oregon are for those land managers. All right. I am back with George Hansen and George, tell us a little bit about some of the challenges that land managers here in Western Oregon might experience in terms of getting pollinator habitat established.

Speaker 2: Okay. So I don't know exactly where to begin with this, but at any rate, almost all land is managed at this point. It's not just left to do whatever it would do naturally. Somebody is trying to do something with the land and whether it's to put a house on it or whether it's to plant an orchard or to raise a seed crop or whatever it is, there are better ways to do that if you're trying to make a living or if you're trying to have a nice living space or whatever, but it's all managed. And when we decide to do something, we enhance certain parts of the landscape and we try and diminish or eliminate problems or things that we don't want. And when we had a simpler world and a simpler farming community or a farming system, you know, there'd be a little bit of everything all over the place and some land that wasn't being used at all. Some of it would be pasture, some of it would just be wood lot and some of it, you know, and to a degree, there's some of that still. But we've gotten so good at farming that once someone decides that they're going to raise something, they're very good at eliminating all the things that might compete or harm that crop. And so now when you think of the major crops raised in the Willamette Valley, whether it's grass seed or whether it's Christmas trees or whether it's hazelnuts or whether it's corn or grapes or just go down the line. Now, how many of those honeybees have anything to do with whatsoever?

Well, really none of them. And so, and in fact, the weeds and other things around the borders that might be a vestige of, you know, along the fence line, those are being eliminated as well because they might harbor pests and so forth and so on. So now we're creating in many areas what are virtually pollinator deserts.

Speaker 1: Well, and I guess to flip that around, the grower is under a lot of constraints in that kind of situation.

Speaker 2: Right. Their crops have gotten more and more lucrative because they're doing all of these things. Right. And there's nobody who's really managing land in order to provide pollinator habitat. Now, there are some seed crops and so forth and so on. And I'm not trying to say that we're doing the wrong thing. I'm just saying that, in some areas at some times and anywhere almost in the United States, we're ending up being so good at what we're doing, that we've left behind the necessary habitat and forage for birds, for bees, and butterflies, just to name a few.

And so I think that's an obstacle because there's no one whose job it is or whose special interest it is to make sure that these things are there. Okay.

Speaker 1: Yeah. That makes perfect sense. So that must be a real obstacle is that you just, in the old style of farming, was automatically built into the farming that you would have this mixture. And now, you almost need a special concerted incentive or program to be able to put this stuff back in.

Speaker 2: I don't see any other way of doing it. The question is, well, what is the incentive for someone to do that other than altruism? I mean, you want to do the right thing, but if you don't get anything back out of it, or if it doesn't even pay its way, why would you do that? And that's a big obstacle.

How do we make this so that it's the right thing to do and you don't get hurt by doing it? You know, when I, was 68 years old, so I've been around for a while and I still feel like I'm a new guy on the block. And I remember my mentors who were, you know, the ones that I remember, Oliver Petty talking about, you know, before the advent of herbicides in the Willamette Valley, you could be raising beans, you could be raising corn, you could be raising whatever, but you'd have crimson clover and vetch coming up in your field because the seed was there. And it didn't matter where you put your bees, as well as there were wild blackberries and there were other things. And the roadsides were filled with, you know, with weeds. And so, it was a time when, you know, you didn't have to worry so much about, you know, sprays and you didn't have to worry so much about, well, gosh, there's nothing there for the bees. Right.

Because almost everywhere there was someplace. So I wasn't around when he's, you know, that time. But, you know, I believe that he was saying that now that's not the case whatsoever, you can be in a place in the Willamette Valley where it's miles before you get to any decent forage for bees.

And you may be at some great harm, which is another, or some risk, which is another obstacle, is that sometimes we might try to do the right thing, like, oh, have between your blackberry rows, you might have a stretch of grass or something which you would mow. Yeah. And yet it gets filled with white clover.

Yeah. And so then when you are spraying for this spotted winged esophilus so that you can sell your berries, you're spraying the clover as well. And the bees, of course, are there. And so you've created a death trap. You do. Maybe you're trying to do the right thing.

Speaker 1: Right thing. And yet you have done exactly the opposite. You're bringing bees into a high pesticide exposure. Right.

Speaker 2: So we have. So on the one hand, we need to create, I think, more opportunities for forage that aren't going to hurt the landowner financially. So they can do the right thing. And at the same time, we don't want to be creating death traps for pollinators. And it's not just honeybees, but wild bees and bumblebees and native bees and stuff. So those are a couple of real obstacles.

Speaker 1: You know, the other thing that we had talked about earlier was the Mediterranean climate of the valley that there is a real short window to establish anything.

Speaker 2: Right. And especially after this year with the long, long dry spell, there's a reason why we raise a lot of the crops in the Willamond Valley we do. We have a dry period in late summer where crops can be swathed and windrowed and they're not going to get rained on.

So they can cure and then they can be harvested with very little chance that they're going to be sprouting in the field. So that's good in one way, but in another way, we, especially this year, everything just burns up and there's very little real forage for any kind of bee at all. And so that's another challenge. So you can start something in the spring and get it through, you know, past the Rose Festival and past the 4th of July.

And then if it stops raining, it's really hard to keep most of that kind of plant going. So there's a there's a dearth there, a huge dearth. And you can chase around and try and find some options.

There aren't very many, but or go to the mountains or, you know, but it always means moving some place else. So it becomes unhospitable. And those few crops that are pollinated at that time, you know, here we are, we're left with one plant that's providing all of the protein and nectar for the bees. And bees thrive best when there's a multitude of sources so that it isn't just a monoculture. So another challenge. Yeah. Okay.

Speaker 1: So it's three, you know, at least three challenges here, we've got farmers who are really have gotten really good at what they're doing. They're eliminating anything on the edges. We've got, we've got a system where with increased use of herbicides, we're really clearing out what was in the middle. And when people, when we do have stuff that does happen to grow in between the within the farm, it can become overlapped with some new invasive pests. And this dry period seems like a very hard problem to square.

Speaker 2: Right. You know, I mean, you can grow almost anything in the Lama Valley if you have water. And the question is whether this kind of forage plot would be worth watering. I mean, whether it would, you know, take, you know, the time and the money to go ahead and do it. So, you know, it's a real challenge. And I, you know, I think a weed scientist or a, or a, maybe that's a bad word in agriculture, but or a biologist too, to work with this and, and see if there are some successions of plants that might, that might work.

Speaker 1: Well, you know, one thing that I do want to kind of come around to is you were involved with an initiative Bees and Butterfly Habitat fund, which seems to kind of address a little work on working that, you know, addresses these issues, working on technical issues and also trying to find the financing for landowners to do this. Can you tell us a little bit about the fund and how it kind of meets these challenges? Sure.

Speaker 2: So there, there are some programs out there, the NRCS, USDA, and others that do some things. They often have certain hurdles in order to participate and get any compensation or whatever you have to do, some of it has to do with native species. And some of them, some of the seed mixes are very, very expensive because they are dealing with natives. And they're very difficult to maintain because grasses out-compete almost all of these blooming plants that are in the seed mixes. So because, of the coalition between the bird, the bees, and the butterflies, we're talking about monarch butterflies basically, and there's a huge push to try and salvage what is left of that migration, which means planting certain plants, mostly milkweeds, in the, the flight way for the butterflies. A lot of the plants that are good for monarch butterflies are also good for honeybees as well.

But the seed mixes are a little bit different. And the major flight path is through the Midwest. And that's where an awful lot of change in landscape has taken place with soybeans and corn becoming common plantings in areas that used to be pasture or unfarmed.

And so right now some pilot projects are going on in the upper, five states in the upper Midwest. And I visited some of those plots this last summer in the Prairie Pothole region of North Dakota. This is an area where the farming has been pretty tough.

But once it became lucrative to raise soybeans, I mean really lucrative to raise soybeans and corn here a few years ago, a lot of that land just went under the plow. And there were some, because of the geography, there are these, the potholes are actually like little marshes or, or lakes, and they just speckled through everything. And the farmers wanted to be able to just start plowing and go in a straight line. And they went right through some of these wetlands and, and, and did whatever they could, they couldn't do the much with the lakes, but parts of their field and you, from aerial photographs, you can see just very, very poor production because the soil's wrong or it's too shallow or it's too wet or whatever.

But it's just a lot easier to set your GPS and have the, you know, have the, the plow goes straight. But they must not be making much money on that. On those parts of the field, they're making almost no money. But the same technology that allows them to basically go a straight line now with the harvesters knows exactly where in the field they're making money and where in the field they're not. And the same technology can have the tractor go around those areas. And so this project through, the Bees and Butterfly Habitat Fund is actually taking some of that land, which is unproductive, and putting it into forage plots, which are an offset for the fact that the corn and the soybeans are of little value and some risk to, to bees.

And 40 to 50% of all the honey bees in the United States are transported to North and South Dakota, those five states we're talking about in the summertime to make a honey crop, to heal up, to get ready for the next year's pollinations. And so to reestablish good forage in those areas is, is a priority. And they're doing it not by taking good farmland, the best farmland, but by trying to do something with the land, which is marginal anyway. And then to fund all of this, they're using private money to kind of equal whatever government programs might do for their, for their programs.

And since they're not tied to a native plant or supporting native pollinators strictly, they're able to use seed mixes, which are much less expensive and more likely to succeed. So that's where that's all going. And if it's successful, it will grow. And there's a lot of interest in farmers. And I think there's interest in other parts of the country for it to go someplace as well.

Speaker 1: Well, it's just struck me from our conversation about Western Oregon, you know, we do have, you know, that same efficiency of farming, you know, presumably, if kind of thought about right could be used to, you know, take those unproduced, more, less productive pieces of land out and turned into something like this, if there was this kind of an incentive, it sounds like a great way to get around this problem. Right.

Speaker 2: I don't know that I can foresee a way to make this a huge moneymaker. But I think that there's a possibility we can make it so that a landowner wouldn't lose any money on it. They'd be, they'd be compensated enough to make sure that by doing the right thing, you weren't getting hurt financially.

Speaker 1: Well, we will put a link on the show notes to the Bee and Butterfly Habitat fund. And I think there are lots of ways if listeners are interested in getting involved or want to contribute to the fund, I think just go through the website, and you'll find a way to do that.

Speaker 2: Yep. I think there's a button that all you have to do.

Speaker 1: Yeah. Dear listeners, this is as easy as pressing a button. Okay, well, we're going to take a break and then we'll come back and we have one last thing we ask you. So, I'm really curious how you're going to answer these same questions. I am deadly curious how you're going to answer them. So, let's take a quick break and we'll come back. All right. We're back with George Hansen and George tells me he's not afraid of any of these questions.

He's, he's, he's going to answer them. And so the first one I'm going to ask you is, is there a book about bees that was really important to you or you want to recommend to you?

Speaker 2: Well, it's kind of off the wall, but when, before I was a beekeeper, commercially, I was a school teacher in Woodburn and I checked a book out on beekeeping because I had acquired a hive of bees and it was a very, very old 1920s version of the ABC XYZ. It was the only bee book that they had in the library. I checked it out and it has some of the most incredible old pictures of beekeeping in the good old days. And that was really just, it was formative, you know, unfortunately, my dog chewed the book up.

No. And I replaced it with a brand new volume, which was not anywhere near as much fun as that old one was. But, I still think of that as my favorite bee book.

Speaker 1: It's a great book as well because it goes through all the things alphabetically. So you kind of get a, you get a, the world of beekeeping gets revealed to you alphabetically. It's, it's a wonderful book. I have not had the pleasure of reading a 1920s version of it.

Speaker 2: Well, you know, it's kind of interesting how many things are the same and how many things are really different. I was certainly before some of the pests and diseases that we now know we have and, and all of that. So it was a wonderfully naive time. And people used to be able to keep hundreds of hives in one place and make a crop of honey in Indiana, where there's nothing but corn and soybeans now. And there are very few beekeepers left. So I mean, things have changed, but you know, we still raise queens the same way. We still put, you know, comb the same way. And, you know, there are just so many things that are the same, a hive tool and a smoker basically look the same as they did a century ago.

Speaker 1: Well, that leads us to our next question. Is there a tool that you use for beekeeping? If you were on a desert island, you could not do without it's your go-to, maybe it's the George Hansen-like innovation to beekeeping. It's what will be put in the next XYZ, ABC, and XYZ.

Speaker 2: Well, so it is not protective gear. It's not gloves. It's not a veil. Uh-huh. It's not even a smoker. Oh, because if you had a smoker and you didn't have a hive tool, you wouldn't be looking at it very much because you could not with your bare fingers, you could not get it apart. That's true.

So the hive tool is by far the most. And in fact, when I do my inspections, which is I'm, I've been around long enough and I have employees and other people that do, you know, I have people, okay. But I need to know what's going on. And when I do my inspections, I usually have a hive tool in my back pocket and I will carry a spray bottle of liquid smoke. Liquid, I don't know what liquid smoke is. Well, it's what makes barbecue meat smoky. It is in fact a concentrated liquid form of smoke. And it works. And you just, dilute that and put it in a spray bottle. And that way I don't have a lit smoker in my, the back of my pickup. And there's no fire danger.

Speaker 1: Let me get this straight. You can put it in a spray bottle and spray it on the bees and they think they're being smoked. It's very similar. Yeah. Wow.

Speaker 2: No, I'm, I'm going to do that. But I don't always even use that very often. I will, I mean, I have it with me because I need it and I have a veil under the seat. Yeah. But I usually don't wear them and or use them.

And I will very often be going down, working in a look up and I'll come across a hive that I'd like to smoke and I can't find the liquid smoke. I left behind 20 palettes because I didn't need them. Right. Right. And getting used to bees and so forth. But the hive tool is by far the most important thing because it allows you to get in and look around. I think.

Speaker 1: Okay. Hive tool. Our last question is, well, the question, what is your favorite pollinator species, but we've broadened it out. It may be a bee, a race of bees, or a kind of bee or it could be a bee colony in your, but I also know you're also conscious of native bees. You're, so I'm, how are you going to answer this question?

Speaker 2: Well, I, I don't want to slight honey bee. I think they're just absolutely amazing and I've been around them and they've been important to me and supported my family for, you know, my adult life. So I can't say that that's not interesting and I still learn all kinds of things that I haven't known even after this lifetime living with them. But I have to tell you that bumblebees are, are, they're just something about them that I think is just neat.

I don't know anywhere near as much as I do about them. I know the basics of their, of their life cycle and stuff, but I, you know, when I go out in the field and I'm watching, I was just absolutely amazed the other day. I was in a field of sunflowers. They were, they were not for sunflower seeds, like to eat or anything, but they were just ornamentals.

They were kind of a, one of the red ones or something like that. It was about 20 acres and I had a hundred hives of bees just on the other side of that field. There were many other fields of flowers in it, but I, I just stopped and I looked up and, and on almost every

Speaker 1: head, thousands and thousands of heads of, of, of sunflowers, there were five or more bumblebees. And I'm thinking, when you realize that there are only 30 to 100 bumblebees in a nest and I could, I mean, uncountable numbers, I'm thinking, where are all those nests of bumblebees?

And there were very few honeybees there. They were doing something on the catnip and the, and other stuff, but at any rate, I, there's just something that draws me to them. I find them really fascinating and I also, you know, my heart goes out to them because they're basically unprotected. Some, we can pick up our bees and move them if they're in harm's way, but there's no one moving the bumblebees. They, and they're, they're just sitting there.

They have to take it all. And so anyway, that's my answer. The a great answer.

And I, I, well, we're going to have to post, I've got, I've got a picture of that very image. It's just like, you know, they just, they're going floret to floret. They're just kind of like little mining little jacks.

Speaker 2: It isn't like a honeybee that moves from flower to flower so much. It's like a, on a sunflower. They just kind of walk around. They can spend all afternoon, you know, just going in that, in that little tight circle.

Speaker 1: So it's pretty cool. Yeah. Well, George, thanks for taking the time. I know it's a busy time of year for you. Thanks so much.

Speaker 2: And almost any time.

Speaker 1: Thanks so much for listening. Show notes with information discussed in each episode can be found at pollinationpodcast.oregonstate.edu. We'd also love to hear from you. And there are several ways to connect. For one, you can visit our website to post an episode-specific comment, suggest a future guest or topic, or ask a question that could be featured in a future episode. You can also email us at pollinationpodcast at organstate.edu. Finally, you can tweet questions or comments or join our Facebook or Instagram communities. Just look us up at OSU pollinator health. If you like the show, consider letting iTunes know by leaving us a review or rating.

It makes us more visible, which helps others discover pollination. See you next week.

After a short six-year career as a public school teacher, George and his wife Susan transformed a hobby beekeeping operation into a commercial endeavor. The business started from a few swarms and a collection of retrieved nuisance hives, but now runs 5000 + colonies in three states. Sons Matt and Joe are incrementally taking control of the business, as George moves towards an as yet undefined retirement. Although the name of the company never changed, the focus of the beekeeping is now primarily pollination service, with honey, wax and bee sales making up no more than 30 percent of gross revenues. George is an active member of the beekeeping community, promoting the industry’s interests as past president of the American Beekeeping Federation. For a decade he served as a producer representative on the National Honey Board. He continues to serve as a trustee on the Foundation for the Preservation of the Honey Bee, and on the board of the Bee Informed Partnership. Currently George represents the industry on the national Honey Bee Health Coalition. For twenty years, he has hosted an annual Bee Day workshop and orientation at the Foothills Honey Company home site.

Listen to today’s episode to learn George’s experience as a land manager, good practice in cultivating pollinator habitats, and his work in the advocacy of pollinators.

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“We’re creating in many areas what are virtually pollinator deserts.“ – George Hansen

Show Notes:

  • How George got started in beekeeping
  • What George does to prepare a site for pollinators
  • The challenges land managers face with pollinator habitats
  • Why pollinator habitats have been diminishing among land managers
  • What George sees as a solution
  • How the Bees and Butterfly Habitat Fund has helped protect pollinators

“You can grow almost anything in the Willamette Valley if you have water, the question is whether this kind of forage plot would be worth watering.“ – George Hansen

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