Noel and Debbie McSweeney like to grow things naturally on their six-acre farm near Peabody. They also pay attention to environmental issues and their impact on local agriculture.
All of this, combined with an intense interest in bees and the production of quality honey, led the couple to pursue and gain “Bee Friendly” status with a statewide organization of beekeepers this January.
Noel McSweeney learned about beekeeping from his father in Ireland. He brought that interest to America, but did not fully pursue it until five or six years ago.
“My grandfather and my dad were always into beekeeping and making honey,” he said. “But when I was a teenager, we didn’t have the proper equipment and I got stung real bad. That put a damper on my enthusiasm for a good number of years.”
Debbie McSweeney, who graduated from culinary school and worked as a professional chef for many years before moving to the Peabody area with her husband Noel. She works as a substitute teacher with the Peabody-Burns school district. She has always maintained an interest in natural foods and their healing properties. It was no surprise that she became interested in Noel’s hobby of raising bees and producing organic honey.
Between them, the couple maintains three beehives and harvests honey each fall. Those were about the only requirements for their recent “Bee Friendly Farm” status award.
“We had to fill out an extensive application form from the Partners for Sustainable Pollination Beekeepers organization,” Debbie said. “Their main goal is to work with farmers and beekeepers to improve the health of honey bees and support native pollinators.”
This fall and winter she spent considerable time researching the bee industry and problems associated with Colony Collapse Disorder.
“Bees have been dying off at an alarming rate, worldwide,” she said. “There are many factors that affect them, such as starvation, chemical sprays, adverse weather conditions, mites, etc. But I think the main problem is that there just isn’t the same type of flowering plants available to support native pollinators anymore.”
As farms grow larger and more commercialized to meet growing food needs worldwide, mono-crops take over where once diversified small farmers were established, she said.
“Bees need a variety of food sources and a succession of flowering plants, in order to get nectar to make honey, and protein to feed their babies,” she said. “The upper Midwest used to be a bee haven, but now there are large farms that special in one mono-crop, such as corn or soybeans, and then nothing when that is harvested. Many natural prairie lands and even flowering weeds in ditches, like musk thistle, have disappeared from the landscape, and along with them go the bees.”
McSweeney said the average bee travels up to two miles to find flowering plants to collect pollen from, but with the expansion of large farms and the destruction of natural habitat due to urban sprawl, it is not surprising they continue to die off at alarming rates.
“It used to be that bees could survive in heavily populated areas, feeding off backyard vegetable and flower gardens, but even that is difficult now,” McSweeney said. “Many sunflowers, a very popular flower with bees, are now pollenless, because people don’t want pollen falling from their table arrangements.”
McSweeney said her main motivation in joining the Kansas Bee Producers Association and gaining “Bee Friendly” status was to find seeds and plants to grow that bees could use for food.
“More and more seed companies are putting special “bee friendly” sections in their catalogs,” she said. “Heirloom varieties or anything that is not a hybrid or genetically modified is good for bees.”
In addition to finding pollen- producing plants, Debbie said bees really struggled to find water this past summer.
“People need to put rocks into their bird baths or put out shallow pans of water for bees,” she said. “A lot of them drown, just trying to get a drink.”
Educating the public about the natural goodness of honey and the needs of bees is a priority for the McSweeney couple in 2012.
In March, Debbie is scheduled to be a speaker at the Kansas Bee Producers annual convention in McPherson.
“I just want people to think about what they are planting,” she said. “The more people plant for pollinators, the better off we all will be. I think it was Einstein who said 40 percent of all our food needs pollination to grow. If the bees can’t survive to pollinate, the human population won’t be far behind them in their demise.”