Empressive Farmer Ep. #4 - Trees and Bees: Friends with Benefits, Featuring Jimmy Gatt
Journeyman Beekeeper and Vice President of the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association
When we think of honey bees and pollination, we often think of the flowering plants in our gardens as being the primary food source for the bees. But did you know that trees and bees have evolved into having a highly mutually beneficial relationship – each playing a critical role in each other’s survival?
Flowering trees provide bees with ample and stable amounts of nectar and pollen, plus shade and shelter from the wind. Bees can even make a honey-like substance from the sap of non-flowering trees like pine. Many species of wild bees even live inside trees. In return, bees provide much-needed pollination services, especially for fruit trees.
There is a lot of interest in beekeeping these days, including among many World Tree farmers. They are considering learning the art of beekeeping in order to generate additional income from producing honey and the other marketable products generated by honey bees. In return, these bees will help ensure local crops and other plants are well pollinated.
The topic of beekeeping is a vast subject with many variations depending on the local climate, ecosystem, and the availability of nectar-producing plants from spring through the fall. It is also as much an art as a science, with many different personal styles of beekeeping.
Our presenter for this Empressive Farmer webinar on “Trees and Bees: Friends with Benefits”, Jimmy Gatt, provides us with a very informative, high-level overview of what’s involved in setting up a beekeeping business, and the possible financial benefits from Empress Splendor (Paulownia) honey and other bee products.
The great news is that the springtime blossoms of the Empress Splendor trees (Paulownia fortunei and elongata) planted by World tree are very high in both nectar and pollen, making them an ideal food source for honey bees. And the honey produced from these blooms is light, fragrant, and very tasty. Although not well known in North America, Empress honey is highly prized in Asia and Australia.
It is estimated that one acre of Empress trees can produce 1,000-1,200 lbs of honey per acre, competitive with other high nectar-producing trees such as Black Locust and Basswood. At the high end of the market, this honey can sell for $16 per pound, or up to $25,600 per acre per year.
Other possible income streams from raising honey bees include beeswax, propolis (from tree resin), raising and selling bees, and mead.
The regulations around selling honey depend on your location and how you plan to distribute it, so best to check with your local authorities before you begin.
The amount of money you need to invest in hives and other supplies to get started in beekeeping depends largely on the type of hives selected. High-end, pre-built hives can cost at least $400 each, but the more inexpensive and labor-intensive versions run as low as $25 per hive. Many people also opt to make their own from scrap wood.
Another reason why Empress trees and honey bees are such a great match is that Empress lumber makes an excellent material to build hives with. It is exceptionally lightweight, yet strong, has great insulating properties to keep the bees cool and summer, and warm in the winter. It is also rot-resistant and has no odor to upset the bees.
The first three years of beekeeping are always the most challenging as there is much to learn both in theory and by trial and error. Springtime is the busiest season, so you need to be sure to allocate an appropriate amount of time to ensure your hives are healthy.
One critical factor to consider when planning to start raising honey bees is that the bees must have flowering plants available to forage on after the springtime tree blooming period is over. Honey bees can forage up to 6 miles from the hive, but they are most efficient at distances less than 2 miles, so their sources should be as local as possible.
One way to help guarantee a summer and fall food source for honey bees is to intercrop nectar-producing cover crops between your trees. Some suggested plants that can be intercropped with Empress Splendor trees include white clover, smooth sumac, buckwheat, anise hyssop, common milkweed (good for Monarch butterflies too!). The honey bees will produce unique tasting honey from each of these plants.
If you are interested in learning more about the subject, Jimmy recommends joining your local beekeepers’ association or club, and if you can, find a mentor to help answer your unique questions.
Recommended reading: Bee Culture magazine’s BeeKeeping: Your first three years, Plants Honey Bees Use in the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, and Honey from the Earth.