Tree Peonies are magnificent, long-lived woody shrubs that no garden should be without. Some varieties reach 4–5′ in height, and plants are capable of bearing fragrant flowers up to 10″ in diameter from mid to late spring. Tree Peonies are disease resistant, and deer generally leave them alone. These treasured plants are also great for cold climates. Most of the varieties we offer can be grown in regions that get as cold in winter as Zone 4. Not sure what your zone is? Click here to find out.
Where do Tree Peonies come from?
Tree Peonies, also known as Moutan, are native to China. Dating back to the 6th century, they were originally grown for medicinal purposes. They are widely used today because these hardy shrubs produce exquisite floral displays.
Where to plant your Tree Peony?
Plant Tree Peonies in fertile, well-drained soil with a neutral pH of 6.5-7. To prevent the peony root from rotting, avoid planting in a soggy area or an area that has standing water for any length of time.
Although Tree Peonies will thrive in the full sun, the large silky flowers will fade quickly. Light shade from hot afternoon sun is necessary to protect the flowers, and in China and Japan, small parasols are set over the plants to block the sun’s rays. We suggest growing Tree Peonies in filtered sunlight or an eastern exposure that receives morning sun and afternoon shade. Growth will be a bit slower than in the full sun, but the flowers will last longer, especially in the South and warm areas of western Zone 9. Tree Peonies require a year or two to mature, but they are more than worth the wait.
How deep should I plant a Tree Peony?
How do I protect my Tree Peony flowers?
Light shade from hot afternoon sun is necessary to protect the flowers, and in China and Japan small parasols are set over the plants to block the sun. If you don’t have the parasols or the time to create shade for your plants, choose a planting site that will be protected against drying winds in summer and winter and will receive afternoon shade.
How often should I water my Tree Peony?
Tree Peonies are very drought tolerant once established. Do not overwater and do not plant near an automatic irrigation system. Wait until the soil has dried down to 4″ before watering deeply. Watering too much will kill the roots and is a common reason for failure.
Should I prune my Tree Peony?
Never prune Tree Peonies back to the ground as is done with Herbaceous Peonies. Prune out any damaged or broken stems after plants leaf out. Once your plant has some age and is growing vigorously, you may want to open up the center a bit to encourage flowering on the taller stems and increase air circulation. Tree Peonies are grafted onto Herbaceous Peony roots and occasionally a shoot from the rootstock will arise from the base of the plant. These should be removed immediately.
Sharing your home and office with indoor plants has plenty of benefits. For one thing, plants are beautiful to look at, and they generally enhance the look of any interior. Studies (including some conducted by NASA) indicate that indoor plants have demonstrated the potential to help purify the air. Living green plants with their pleasing, biomorphic shapes are also thought to reduce stress and promote tranquility. While most indoor plants don’t require much in the way of care, the little bit of nurturing they do need (mainly in the form of occasional watering) is, for many, a pleasing ritual.
If you have never grown a houseplant indoors (or even if you’ve killed a few in trying), there is no need for trepidation. Keep in mind the most common cause of houseplant trouble is overwatering, so most of us who grow indoor plants tend not to neglect our charges but to care too much. Most houseplants will grow and thrive if given their required conditions: adequate space, their preferred sun exposure, regular watering (and not too much), and occasional fertilizer. Most varieties can tolerate a certain degree of neglect so if you’re away for a week on vacation, there’s no need to anticipate plant carnage upon your return. The long and short is you don’t need to be a gardener or a green thumb to enjoy the beauty and benefits of indoor plants, but a few tips will help you ensure your plants thrive. Here is a helpful primer for beginners:
Choose the Right Plant for the Right Spot
Before adding any new plant to your home or office, survey the spot where you plant to put it. How much space is available? Is the space big enough for a large plant, or do you need a smaller, tabletop variety? What is the quality of light? Is the plant’s future home in shade, lit by direct sun, or suffused with bright indirect light? Most houseplants, including some of those listed below, require bright, indirect light. That means they are best situated in rooms with a south-facing window. But there are also plants that grow beautifully in the lower light of rooms with less advantageous exposures. Keep in mind that east/west-facing windows generally provide moderate light while north-facing windows have low light. So before purchasing any plant, take a few minutes to orient yourself in a room, determine the size of the plant’s future home and the quality of sunlight it offers. Keep this information in mind when plant shopping so you can choose the right plant for the right spot.
Read the Plant Tag
Any plant being offered for purchase should be accompanied by a tag or webpage that offers information including the plant’s botanical and common names, its light requirements, size at maturity, and, if relevant, period of bloom. Pay particular attention to the type of light the plant requires and its eventual size to ensure it’s a good match for the conditions you can offer. We’ve all made the mistake of buying a plant based solely on its good looks only to find we don’t have the right conditions to keep it looking its best.
Don’t Drown Your Houseplant
The fastest and easiest way to kill a houseplant is not by neglect but by overwatering. Over the years, our customer service team has fielded countless calls from well-meaning plant owners who are essentially drowning their charges. A plant’s needs for water vary by time of year, the humidity level in the home (which can change significantly due to conditions outdoors), the plant’s life cycle, and the type of container it’s potted in. (Clay pots promote evaporation at a higher rate than most other materials, which means plants potted in clay tend to need more frequent hydration.) Some people we know water their plants on a weekly schedule, i.e., if it’s Thursday, the plants get a drink. We don’t recommend this approach. If you do keep a calendar, use it to check on the plant to see if it needs water. Don’t automatically water every plant just because the calendar says so. Let the plant tell you what it needs. The best way to know if your plant is thirsty is to gently press the soil at the top of the pot with your finger. If the soil is dry to a depth of 1”, your plant needs a drink. Some plants appreciate a thorough watering, which is best done over the sink, if that’s possible. (Simply add water in a slow, steady stream until the soil takes it up and you feel the pot growing heavier in your hand. Let water drip out the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot before turning off the tap. When the last drips escape the drainage holes, return the plant to its saucer or tray. Don’t water the plant again until the soil at the top of the pot is dry to the touch. If a plant is too large to carry to the sink, or if, like Snake Plants and Dracaenas, plants prefer to be watered less thoroughly, pour in just enough to dampen the soil around the base of the plant.
A few overall watering tips:
Never leave any plant in standing water. If the saucer beneath a plant fills with water, empty it at once. Keep in mind that if the potting mix stays wet, a plant’s roots can begin to rot.
Some plants, including the Snake Plant, Dracaenas, some Philodendrons, and Chinese Evergreens prefer to dry out considerably before being watered again.
Plants with a dense leaf spread around their bases (African Violets, Peace Lilys, etc.) generally prefer to be watered from below. Pour a modest amount of water into the plant’s saucer and let the plant take it up by the roots before adding more. Do not saturate.
Before watering Snake Plants and Dracaenas, you can wait until the soil is dry enough to begin pulling away from the edges of the pot.
Plants require less water during the winter months when they are not actively growing.
As you get to know your individual houseplants, their watering needs will become apparent to you. During the time it takes you to familiarize yourself with the plant, err on the side of under-watering. A droopy, thirsty plant will recover better and faster than one that’s been overwatered.
For information about individual indoor plants, including when and what to feed them, refer to the Growing Guides on each plant’s product page on our website. Before you know it, the care of your plants will become second nature to you, and we can all but promise you’ll be delighted in their company.
Roses have been among the most popular flowers known to man for centuries, perhaps millennia, and they remain one of the loveliest and most versatile of flowering shrubs for any garden situation that offers plenty of sun and well-drained soil. Below are some key tips for growing Roses successfully:
Roses require rich soil. When planting, dig a wide hole and replace 1/3 of the soil with compost.
Once the soil warms in spring, apply a generous layer of organic mulch.
For tips on planting bareroot Roses, see the Growing guide on our website.
Water new Roses thoroughly once a week unless Mother Nature is on the job.
Remove and dispose of old foliage regularly to help prevent disease.
Prune in early spring once growth starts. Remove dead wood first followed by weak or crossing branches.
Remove faded flowers all summer, cutting back to the first large bud at a leaf with 5 leaflets.
Today’s fuss-free Roses come in a remarkable range of sizes and forms – from large Landscape Roses that are ideal as focal points or backdrops in a perennial border to lower-growing varieties that are superb specimens for the middle or edge of a garden to climbers that can smother an archway or wall in beautiful blooms. Roses are great companions for Clematis, Delphiniums, Lilies, and Peonies. Below are two exclusive new preplanned gardens that feature Roses with more of their favorite companions:
Longtime favorite Rose Julia Child™ forms the centerpiece of this colorful, richly fragrant garden. Framing the yellow-flowering, easy-care Rose are layers of bloom from equally low-maintenance companions – the baby blue blossom spikes of mounding Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low,’ the electric blue spires of Salvia ‘Blue Hill,’ and the jewel-tone pink flower clusters of compact Achillea millefolium Song Siren™ ‘Layla.’ 1 plant each of the Rose and Nepeta, 2 each of the Achillea and Salvia. 6 plants total. Covers approximately 30 sq. ft.
This lovely garden is designed to perform throughout the full growing season. The cornerstone of this collection is the everblooming saffron-colored Easy Elegance® Coral Cove Rose which is enhanced by long-season performers Stachys byzantina ‘Big Ears’ and Leucanthemum Daisy May®. In early summer, Salvia x sylvestris ‘Blue Hill’ adds an electric blue accent. Two plants of Phlox ‘Fashionably Early Princess’ join in later, adding long-blooming pale purple blossoms to the show. Covers approximately 18 sq ft.
I suppose it wouldn’t be winter in the nursery business without some weather challenges, and as I write this, our team is scrambling to get every package shipped before a stretch of severe cold arrives. Loath as we are to delay any deliveries, we have found over the years that “late but healthy” gifts are much preferred to the “on-time but frozen” sort. (We’ll resume shipping as soon as the mercury rises enough to keep our plants safe as they travel.) Jack Frost and Mother Nature have both figured prominently in the way we do business for many years now, and while both have created no small amount of drama, we respect that they have final say in these matters, and we trust that our beautiful, lovingly tended plants are always worth the wait. If, by chance, you still have some last minute shopping to do, and if you don’t want your recipient to wait for a plant delivery, a White Flower Farm gift certificate is our most popular all-purpose gift and can be delivered instantly via email.
When the mad dash of the holiday season is past and the conveyor belt in the warehouse turns silent just before Christmas Eve, our team will take a well-deserved breather before turning our full attention to Spring 2020 and beyond. With publication of our Spring 2020 Garden Book, we are humbled and gratified to be marking our 70th anniversary. The first edition of this year’s spring 2020 catalog will be mailed in the next 10 days. It features dozens of interesting new plant introductions alongside hundreds of tried and true varieties (including some that appeared in White Flower Farm’s very first catalogs 70 years ago). These days, our offering extends well beyond the garden plants that got us started all those years ago. If, for you, “gardening” means a low-light houseplant, or a pot or two of colorful annuals on the patio, or even just an occasional bouquet of fresh-cut flowers, you’ll very likely find something to suit in our catalog and at whiteflowerfarm.com.
On top of the day-to-day business of growing and delivering plants, we have a number of big picture projects in various stages of development. Perhaps most important is an ongoing investigation into various opportunities to “green” our business. The nursery trade is resource-intensive, and aside from the significant water and energy requirements of our greenhouse operations, there are the many environmental impacts of running an e-commerce business for us to consider. Cardboard and shipping materials, plastic plant pots, trucking, etc. – it all adds up, and we are always looking for ways to reduce our carbon footprint. In recent years, we’ve made a significant investment in solar energy, and moving ahead, we are actively evaluating alternative packaging solutions, methods to reduce our water needs, and everything in between. Some of these challenges will be very difficult to solve in the near term, but we’ll keep you posted on our progress.
Looking ahead, I’m also excited about a burgeoning effort to partner with a new cohort of American specialty wholesale growers on certain crops we don’t currently propagate at the nursery. You’ll be reading about these partnerships in forthcoming catalogs. The short version of the story is that we are seeking out growers who share our long-term commitments to quality, sustainability, and customer service. Our customers will reap the benefits of these partnerships for decades to come.
To close, I’d like to offer my sincerest thanks to our customers, suppliers and partners, and to my colleagues for their respective support of, and dedication to, White Flower Farm. We are always aiming to do better, and we wouldn’t have gotten this far without a darned good team and the patronage of our loyal customers. We have so much to be thankful for. On behalf of everyone at White Flower Farm, I send my best wishes for a happy, peaceful holiday season and a green and blossoming New Year.
If you’ve never before grown an Amaryllis, you’re about to see just how easy and fun it can be. Here you’ll find some helpful tips for getting a prepotted bulb started, and caring for it properly before it blooms.
First, keep in mind that signs of growth can generally be seen 2-8 weeks after your bulb arrives. Generally, you’ll see the bright green tip of a blossom stalk or leaf emerging from the top of the bulb. Certain varieties of Amaryllis may take a bit more time to sprout. As long as your bulb remains firm, be patient and take care not to overwater.
Watering: Potted Amaryllis need only a thorough watering with lukewarm water to begin growing. After that initial drink, water your bulb only when the top 1″ inch of the potting mix is dry to the touch. Watering more frequently, particularly just after potting, can cause the bulb to rot. If the pot is covered with Spanish Moss, lift the moss and pour water directly on the potting mix.
Temperature: Place the pot where the temperature remains above 60°F. The warmer the temperature (70-80°F night and day is ideal), the faster the bulb will sprout and grow. Providing bottom heat (by setting the pot on a propagation mat or on the top of a refrigerator) may help stimulate growth.
Where to Place Your Amaryllis in the House: As soon as the bulb sprouts, provide ample sunshine; a south-facing window or a sunroom is ideal. Rotate the pot frequently to prevent the flower stalks from leaning toward the light.
Use Amaryllis Stakes: The flower stalks may require support to keep from toppling. Click here for our Amaryllis stakes that are ideally suited to this purpose.
You’ll find more tips and tricks for how to care for Amaryllis here.
It’s getting cold outside! Temperatures have begun to dip, and the season of outdoor gardening is winding down as winter approaches. Those of us who love plants will now focus on gardening indoors, enjoying plants and greenery throughout the winter months. Houseplants offer the perfect escape from winter’s ice and snow. Here are some basic care instructions and tips to help you succeed with your indoor plants:
Light: Most houseplants prefer bright light with some direct sun. East- and west-facing windows are ideal, and a south-facing window is satisfactory if the plants are not against the glass.
Temperature: Most houseplants are content at 60–70°F. Please note that sunny windowsills that are not well ventilated can get extremely warm on bright days.
Humidity: All houseplants (except Cacti) resent the excessively dry air produced by radiators, hot-air vents, wood stoves and areas close to south-facing windows. Humidity should be provided by standing the plants on trays of moist pebbles, or by using a humidifier nearby.
Watering: This is an art that can be learned. The secret is to poke your index finger into the potting soil. If it is dry 1″ down from the surface, water thoroughly. Don’t water again until the soil is once again dry at the top. If the soil shrinks away from the edge of the pot, it is too dry and root damage is likely to occur. If soil remains constantly wet, the roots will rot. When this occurs some leaves may turn brown or yellow.
Feeding: Houseplants generally need plant food only when actively growing. This is usually in spring and summer. All flowering houseplants prefer a plant food that is low in nitrogen and high in phosphorus. We suggest applying fertilizer at half the rate listed on the container, but at the same frequency.
Potting: The potting soil we supply with some plants should be moistened, but not soaked, before using. When it is time to repot, use a good potting soil recommended for houseplants, avoiding bargain brands. Water well before potting. Remove the plant by turning it upside down and tapping the edge of the pot against a solid object. Use a pot that is 1–2″ larger or return it to the same pot by carefully removing about an inch of the soil and roots. At the same time, trim the foliage by one third. Please note: this treatment is not recommended for Clivia. Add compost gradually and firm the soil. Settle the soil by tapping the base of the pot. After potting, water well, but avoid washing out the fresh compost.
Pests: Most plants have few problems when properly cared for, but there will be situations, including insects and other pests, that require some treatment. Wait until the plant is not in flower. The safest method is to drown any insects with tepid water using the sprayer in a kitchen sink. Make sure not to soak the soil too much. If this doesn’t work, plunge the foliage in a bucket of soapy water, using liquid soap, not detergent. If this fails, try mixing 2 ounces of rubbing alcohol, 2 tablespoons Ivory Liquid Soap and enough water to make a quart. Apply with a sprayer that can produce a strong spray to dislodge the critters, taking care to hit the underside of the leaves and the growing tips. Commercial houseplant sprays are available if severe infestations occur.
Summer Treatment: Most houseplants prefer to be outside during the summer. If your houseplants are varieties that can tolerate full sun, it is critical to place them in a shady location for 2–3 weeks before you expose them to full sun. Return them indoors as soon as night temperatures drop below 45°F.
Trimming: Trimming will be necessary for vigorous varieties during growing season.
It’s been a beautiful summer and early fall at the nursery and each corner of our little company is charging forward in its own direction – a greenhouse under construction here, a Rose garden being expanded there. Our store in Morris, CT, is open seven days a week through Nov. 17, and is stocked with many of the bulb varieties that are flooding in from the Netherlands. Our education on honey bees continues (complete summary here), and we already have more gorgeously floral honey on our hands than we know what to do with. And of course, our customer service and shipping teams are girding for a furious few months. In short, the nursery business continues, and though sometimes it feels a little chaotic around here, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Along the way, of course, a few plants in particular have caught our eye.
Angelica gigas is a stately Korean native that is late to break dormancy in spring and comes into its own in August and September. In our gardens, it has biennial tendencies and is generally short-lived; perhaps these slightly unusual rhythms are why it’s not seen in more gardens. We find that its dark umbels and green foliage pair nicely with lots of plants and it’s also an insect favorite – bees seem particularly drawn to it.
From this summer’s trial list, a recently introduced Begonia called ‘Fragrant Falls Peach’ has been a particular standout. If you’ve ever visited the nursery in late summer, you know how fond we are of Begonias. ‘Fragrant Falls Peach’ has a trailing habit with lovely double flowers and a strong Rose fragrance. It jumped out at us this summer not only because of the soft color and delicious perfume but also because of its strength – it has flowered all summer and seems to tolerate a good deal of sun. All in all, it’s a remarkable plant that we anticipate growing in containers and in the gardens for many summers to come. Look for it in our spring Garden Book.
A summer visit to Chicago’s spectacular Lurie Garden (a Piet Oudolf masterpiece tucked into Millenium Park) reacquainted us with Limonium latifolium, commonly known as Sea Lavender or Statice. This is a sun-loving, cold-hardy perennial that welcomes dry conditions and delivers clouds of tiny, lavender-blue flowers on wiry stems. In the dense plantings at Lurie, it appears as a delicate pale purple haze in and around its neighbors – quite an effect, particularly in long, late afternoon light. We haven’t offered this terrific plant in some time, but you can expect to see it in catalogs to come.
A last note – our collection of gardening books is ever-expanding, and there were a few notable additions this summer. Margaret Roach has rewritten her modern classic A Way To Garden, which presents practical how-to information alongside musings about what gardening does to us, and for us, in a rapidly changing world. In a more extravagant vein, Martha Stewart’s new Martha’s Flowers: A Practical Guide to Growing, Gathering and Enjoying is a feast for the eyes. Not many of the stunning arrangements pictured in the book are practical for mere mortals, but they’re inspiring nonetheless. We also have been enjoying David Culp’s The Layered Garden: Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty from Brandywine Cottage, a 2012 release that beautifully captures the approach of Mr. Culp (a widely acclaimed nurseryman and plant breeder) to building and maintaining gardens that perform year-round. If you have someone on your holiday list who enjoys garden books, you’ll want to see the four new titles we’re offering for the gift-giving season.
We hope you are enjoying your own splendid autumn in the garden and that you’re planting plenty of bulbs for next season’s springtime show. (Don’t miss our seasonal specials on a wide variety of perennials, shrubs and bulbs for fall planting.) With the holidays just around the corner (and with only a few short weeks separating Thanksgiving and Christmas on this year’s calendar), we hope you’ll rely on us for some exceptional gifts for your family members, friends, and colleagues. If we can assist with your shopping and gift selections, our friendly, knowledgeable customer service agents are always delighted to help.
From all of us at the farm, a happy and contented autumn in the garden.
The very word Daffodil is magic, for these rugged and cheerful blooms are the first major flowers of spring, and they light up the landscape on even the dreariest day. Many gardeners know the familiar yellow Trumpet forms but have yet to encounter the many and varied shapes, sizes, and colors now available in the genus.
Daffodils (also known as Narcissus) possess three enormously valuable attributes that contribute to their vast popularity.
They will thrive in almost any location that offers decent drainage and half a day of sun, and will actually reproduce spontaneously in a site they like. Most strains are reliably hardy from Zones 3–7, with numerous forms, including the fragrant Paperwhites that prosper in Zones 8–10.
They are extremely long-lived in any setting, making them ideal for long-term and naturalized plantings, where they often outlive the proprietor.
Daffodils are immune to disease and pests, INCLUDING DEER WHICH WILL NOT TOUCH THEM.
Daffodils bloom reliably each year, and many hardy varieties can also be successfully forced indoors—a lost art we hope to encourage.
Keys to Success with Daffodils
Fertilize: The best time to fertilize bulbs is in the fall. The next best time is in early spring, just as the foliage begins to emerge.
Leave the leaves alone: Allow the foliage to mature after bloom. Do not cut, braid, fold, or mow the leaves. Remove only after they turn brown.
Garden Design Ideas for Daffodils
Plant Daffodil bulbs in a woodland garden that is sunny until the trees leaf out.
Tuck bulbs between the crowns of Daylilies or other perennials in a mixed border, where the leaves of perennials will hide the fading Daffodil foliage.
Most of us think about our gardens and outdoor spaces with a keen eye toward how they look during the day. This year, we’ve been thinking of more ways to make our gardens shine in the evening hours.
The first item to think about is outdoor lighting for your plants, and we’ve got several ideas for you to choose. Then there are the plants themselves to consider, and we have a list of those too. We refer to them as Moon Garden plants, and have chosen them specifically because they are gorgeous during the day, and have an enchanting glow at night.
Having spent four plus decades in the world of plants, I am familiar with honey bees as companions in my garden, orchard, meadow, and, briefly, in a pair of poorly managed hives near our house. Their background murmuring and frenetic activity on warm days are a central part of the sights, scents and sounds that constitute nature as experienced in a temperate climate. Or, to be more accurate, they were.
With my son taking over our small plant nursery in northwest Connecticut, I was looking for a way to keep busy and stay out of his way during the six months each year that I live on the property. Like most Americans, I’ve been uneasily aware of declining bee populations and a related phenomenon called “Colony Collapse Disorder” for some years and lazily linked the reports to a combination of habitat decline, agricultural chemicals, and climate change. Since the former two scarcely exist in our area, and the latter has so far produced mainly milder winters here, and because bees’ seasonal pattern is much like mine (active outdoors mainly above 50 degrees), the idea of keeping some hives to produce and sell both bees and honey became compelling and even seemed mildly rational. Perhaps there was a genuine opportunity for doing well while doing good, sustaining a family business while supporting the population of a crucial pollinator of crops and gardens and the only producer of harvestable quantities of honey. That’s when my homework began.
Honey bees (properly known as Apis mellifera) are not native to the Americas whose abundant pre-colonial flora was for eons pollinated by a wide range of insects including solitary bees (they don’t form colonies), plus moths, wasps, butterflies, and countless other genera for whom the sugary nectar of flowers is an important food source. When Europeans brought the first honey bees, they were seeking an inexpensive sweetener, wax for candles, and a pollinator to boost the yields of their fields and orchards. In the ensuing five centuries, honey bees found their way into every corner of the Americas that provided enough rainfall for plants to grow and a tolerable winter through which they could sustain themselves by their uncanny ability to cluster together and generate heat by metabolizing their stored honey. Those conditions are available in a large percentage of both Americas, and the bees promptly escaped their colonial masters and went native, presumably displacing some indigenous competitors whose declines are not recorded.
The diaspora of hive bees into the countryside didn’t diminish the number of colonies maintained by beekeepers who preferred to secure honey by raiding their own hives rather than searching out and extracting wild colonies in the forest. The job of beekeeper was made infinitely easier by an American beekeeper (and minister) named L.L. Langstroth whose studies determined that it was possible to create a space that encouraged bees to form their comb (the wax network of receptacles in which they raise their young and store their honey) in discrete segments instead of a single mass. That insight, hatched in 1851, allowed the creation of hives using removable frames, permitting honey to be extracted without destroying the hives and often the tree cavity in which the hive was located. The Langstroth hive remains the basic technology of the bee industry to this day, a rare example of a design surviving the industrial revolution and the information revolution essentially unchanged. While there are modest variations in design and materials, the vast majority of domesticated bee colonies are thus housed to good effect. As we considered our path forward, this would surely have been our choice as well.
A bee colony is a miracle of social collaboration in which thousands of individuals, both males, known as drones and whose only role is reproduction, and females, known as workers, which organize to provide food and housing for an immensely productive queen bee and then for successive generations of her offspring. After a winter period of relative inactivity within the hive, a healthy colony can produce vast numbers of bees from newly laid eggs that develop through three stages to adult bees in roughly three weeks. These adults then set about gathering nectar and pollen to feed the colony, and caring for the queen. The adults themselves are short-lived, about a month for the workers and perhaps two for the drones, but the fantastic productivity of a healthy and well-fed hive can produce population increases that exceed the living space within a few weeks, causing the departure of part of the colony to find a new housing arrangement where they can establish a new queen and build a new colony. These swarms occur frequently and by anticipating and managing this process, a disciplined and observant beekeeper is able to create new colonies, increasing his collection of hives to either manage or sell to other keepers.
Established colonies have a second essential function beyond this abundant reproductive cycle, that being food gathering. Bees sustain themselves by collecting both nectar and pollen from blooming plants within in their foraging range (about 2½ miles from the hive). This activity has made them extremely valuable to mankind for two reasons. The first is that bees store their winter food supply in the form of honey which is essentially plant nectar from which the water content has been evaporated. Honey is an extraordinary substance, a richly flavored sweetener that seldom spoils and, many believe, is also an aid to human health when eaten or applied topically. Bees store their honey in exquisitely geometric wax combs they manufacture in their hives and then consume it to sustain them throughout the winter. Beekeepers seek to sharecrop this operation by periodically removing frames that are filled with honey and spinning them in a centrifuge to remove the honey, after which they’re returned to the hive for a refill. In the days before sugar cane and sugar beets were widely processed to make sugar, honey was a prized addition to man’s diet.
In addition to honey production, the foraging process also provides an extraordinarily important function which is entirely incidental to the mission of the bees but absolutely crucial to the well-being of their co-habitants on the planet. That process is the pollination of plants in which pollen, the male reproductive cells found on the anthers of plants, is transported from one plant to another, fertilizing the female organs (stigma) of the recipient and enabling reproduction by the creation of seeds. Bees don’t pollinate plants on purpose. They gather pollen, a form of protein, as one of the core elements of their diet and transport it back to their hives for storage and later consumption. In the process, pollen particles are attached to their body hairs and transported randomly from one plant to another. In pursuit of food, a colony of bees will visit literally millions of flowers and provide for them a crucial catalyst in successful reproduction. While there are many other insect pollinators, none of them goes about their business with quite the same intensity, probably because bees are uniquely committed to keeping a large community of individuals alive through the winter.
The pollination role provided by honey bees has been recognized through observation for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years and is, of course, crucial to the existence of countless species of native plants and the animals that depend on them. The stimulation of this process by placing hives in crop fields or orchards in an organized manner is far more recent. In modern agriculture, especially fruit and nut orchards, yields are vastly increased by locating or relocating hives in the vicinity of the trees and bushes at the time of their of bloom, which is typically two to four weeks. There are few commercial growers who don’t take advantage of this low cost and powerful ally to increase the yield of their crops. Indeed, the vast majority of bee colonies under management in the U.S. are employed in this manner, and pollination services, as the industry is known, represent the primary revenue source for most commercial bee operators, with honey production a distant second.
The most extreme example of this business is found in the fantastically large and profitable almond groves of California’s Central Valley. More than 1.1 million acres of near desert land are planted to almonds, with the trees receiving their water largely from trickle irrigation. In this environment, native plants and thus insect pollinators are few, and the crop is made possible by the introduction of roughly 2 million beehives maintained elsewhere and trucked in for a month to service the blooming trees. Needless to say, this practice is heavily dependent on the means of transport that are available, and that transport must be chosen and operated with care. That’s because bees, for all their apparent durability and abundance, are in fact dependent on their ability to sustain a very precise environment in their hive so as to maintain all their functions, and this consistency can be challenging on a trip that might often exceed a thousand miles. To repeat, individual bees, with the exception of queens, are very short-lived, and a hive must produce multiple generations of young (known as brood) each season in order to survive. For these cycles to occur, the inside of the hive must be maintained at close to 90 degrees Fahrenheit with consistent ventilation and continual maintenance. Accordingly, rough handling or extreme temperatures or relocation during daylight hours when the residents are out foraging can do irreparable damage to a colony, causing it to drop below the crucial population density at which all the necessary jobs can get done. This means that hives need to be moved at night and/or in dark, temperature-controlled vehicles. So hundreds of temperature-controlled semis roll into the Central Valley in late January, and the owners of these bees receive close to $200 per hive for the visit, thus generating a large portion of their year’s revenues in four weeks.
This seasonal migration produces a bonanza for the almond growers and the beekeepers but is not without its downsides, especially for the bees. For all living creatures including ourselves, travel is stressful. Changes in climate, soil, diet, elevation, pests and predators, and even noise levels can disturb natural rhythms both for adult bees and for the brood under their care. In addition, the almond groves are frequently treated with chemicals for pest control and while that’s never intentionally done with the beehives in place, the local soils are inevitably saturated with all kinds of compounds whose effects on bees are unknowable but certainly not positive. A great irony of this specific crop is that the nectar of almond trees produces honey so bitter as to be unusable for humans, though it’s apparently acceptable to bees. And further insult follows, because the bees need to continue foraging after the almonds have ceased blooming, which means the hives need to be transported to sources of blooming plants elsewhere. This could mean fruit orchards in Oregon or Tupelo forests in Florida, and the shocks of relocation are repeated serially over eight to nine months until the hives come to rest somewhere for the winter.
Frequent air travelers know from experience that airplanes are an excellent place to acquire a cold or worse, and the impact of travel is the same for bees. By moving from place to place for most of a year, pollination colonies are exposed to every pest and disease and chemical that exist in each ecosystem, virtually assuring that somewhere along the way they will be severely stressed in the best case and effectively euthanized in the worst case. Equally important, they become the vector by which pests and diseases are transmitted from one region of the country to another, with an effect similar to the first year of school for young children. It’s a pretty gloomy perspective for this most diligent and useful natural creature and sadly the narrative has recently been expanded to include a new element with devastating effects.
Just as people are preyed upon by ticks, bees are subject to parasites, but their natural behavior of hive cleaning, disposing of sick and dead bees, and swarming to new and better neighborhoods has allowed them to thrive in the vast array of ecologies offered by the North American continent. But that status changed about 33 years ago with the accidental introduction of a pestilential mite named Varroa destructor. This nasty parasite, probably native to Southeast Asia but familiar also in Europe for several decades, was first reported in the United States in 1986. It preys on the brood in the cells where eggs are laid and attaches itself to the emerging larvae and ultimately to the mature bees. Until recently, it was believed that the mites fed on the blood of the bees, but recent work by a Maryland PhD student named Samuel Ramsey has determined that it is, in fact, the fat of the bees that the mites consume, probably conveying various viruses in the process. Young bees are weakened and often disfigured, reducing their ability to forage and ultimately leading to their deaths. Because reproduction is continuous in a functioning hive, the mites also reproduce, maintaining pressure on their hosts while also hitching a ride to other colonies during foraging and breeding. A hives’ ability to generate winter warmth is weakened by reduced population, which means that in northern climates they enter winter like a drunk, in the worst possible condition, and many don’t survive. As a result, hive losses have been steadily increasing nationwide for three decades and have become so dire and persistent that commercially managed reproduction is essentially impossible in areas with cold winters. As a result, commercial production of bees is now concentrated in southern states or in the hands of operators who can afford to invest in temperature-controlled winter storage. In the former case, most bee colonies are concentrated in a few areas after which newly hatched spring bees are packaged and put on trucks north for sale. If you visualize stockyard cattle, you’re not far off. Of course, the large operators who can afford winter storage mostly secure their revenues through pollination services and the incessant travel that model requires. Accordingly, most bees in America have been around a lot and in direct or indirect contact with commercial and feral populations throughout the continent. This, of course, violates the most basic principle of epidemiology and selective evolution, which is isolation.
Despite the best efforts of science, the Varroa mite can only be partially controlled through various management techniques that range from chemical drenches to various forms of non-toxic or integrated pest control. But as the narrative above makes clear, re-infection and re-transmission is incessant due to the nature of bees and the industrial model to which they are harnessed. There is speculation that certain strains of bees may have or may be gradually developing some genetic resistance to the mite, but keeping a strain of bees pure is quixotic to say the least. When a queen sallies forth to mate on a spring day, she will find her way to an area with a dense concentration of drones (males) and will mate with several, all of unknown provenance. At the same time, there’s an excellent chance she will return bearing a mite that has piggybacked on one of the drones. It’s an impossible situation to manage, and it offers an extremely difficult future for bees and their keepers.
This reality became clear to me after months of reading and talking to professionals and academics whose lives have been devoted to bees. It had two obvious implications, one simple and self-referential and the second having appalling consequences for our continent. In the first case, it was clear that producing bees for sale in a northern climate would be a near certain impossibility as a business model because winter losses, typically averaging one third or more in the best operations, wouldn’t allow the creation of colonies for sale. Yes, it would be possible to purchase southern bees and truck them in for resale, but the logistics are difficult and expensive and risky, and guaranteeing the quality of the imported colonies is impossible. In either case, customers, mainly hobbyists, who bought our bees would inevitably be overwhelmed by mites and experience unsustainable losses in a year or two through no fault of their own. This would leave them with two alternatives: either replacing their bees annually with new purchases or simply abandoning the project. In either case, we would have sold them a dream but not a realistic prospect of success, which is not a prospect I could get comfortable with.
The much larger question is what this imported plague means for America’s vast agricultural infrastructure, huge portions of which depend substantially if not entirely on the services of bees to assure pollination. The answer to that question is not precisely known at this time but the trend is threatening in the extreme. A variety of experiments are underway to identify alternatives and they range from hand-pollination (which is widely practiced in plant breeding where genetics must be tightly controlled), to huge fans set up to blow pollen from place to place, to tiny mechanical drones which might one day learn to mimic the behavior of bees, absent the honey. In parallel, the commercial and academic communities are struggling to come up with tools to suppress or eliminate the mites, bee strains that can survive them, and management techniques that may offset the impact of this infection. Meanwhile, on the horizon, a new Asian mite has been identified which is larger and potentially more devastating. It has yet to be discovered in the Americas but eventual arrival seems inevitable, with consequences that one authority described to me as “unimaginable.”
Though it’s not at this point a useful speculation, it’s difficult to avoid connecting this series of events with similarly dangerous plagues under way in citrus, bananas, chickens and hogs, all of which are experiencing devastating losses from bacterial blights. The common threads, aside from timing, are obvious. One is globalization in which every person, dollar, idea, and germ has a good likelihood of finding its way to any ecosystem where it can survive. The other is monoculture, that modern form of factory farming in which economics drive everyone to concentrate on the same plant cultivar, strain of animal genetics, food source, processing system, antibiotic remedy, and marketing channel. With all the eggs, or chickens, in one basket, any trouble that crops up strikes everyone everywhere, with results that are predictably devastating. Is it too extreme to postulate that our food systems are truly in peril? That remains to be seen, and there are legions of talented people and vast financial resources committed to finding answers.
One of those answers has to be diversity, including crops, locations, cultivation techniques, and seasons. By creating discrete populations at discrete sites, all at smaller scale, the risk of a universal affliction is essentially eliminated. This is precisely the regimen advocated by locavores as a means to provide healthier and tastier food, and many consumers have chosen these products despite higher prices driven by much higher production costs. It seems improbable at the moment, but there may be a time ahead when these local crops are, in certain categories, all that is available. Whatever the path, it is glaringly evident that bees, the farmers that travel on their own, cannot be localized and must somehow evolve to deal with their mite infestation or cease to be an engine of reproduction for plants. More chemicals can’t be the answer, but an answer is badly needed.