Luscher Farm may hold a key to the dilemma of colony collapse disorder
he beekeeper just couldn't understand it.
His bees were returning to their hives laden with pollen and nectar. This was highly unusual because as winter approaches the amount of food for bees normally dwindles as they get ready for their long winter hibernation. Yet amazingly these bees were coming back all plump with pollen.
'They're probably going to Luscher Farm,' the beekeeper was told by the people who own the land where he keeps his hives.
As guesses go, this one was a bullseye. Luscher Farm, besides all of its other assets as a place where fresh, organic produce is grown, is an absolutely wonderful spot for bees with its wide variety of vegetables and grains - all without the use of pesticides.
In other words, it's bee heaven.
'The whole farm is organic, which is a big bonus,' said Karen Davis, head gardener of Luscher Farm for the city of Lake Oswego. 'There's also a large community garden for 160 families who grow a big diversity of plants. Different bees are attracted to different plants.'
'That's nice,' you might say. 'But so what?'
In case the only things you like to eat are cereal and bread, then you don't need to worry.
But otherwise you need to know that bees, the little guys who have been taken for granted for so long, are dying off in positively gigantic numbers in a manner that is baffling scientists. The process is called colony collapse disorder.
'We still don't know what is going on,' said Mace Vaughan, conservation director for the Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation of Portland. 'So far it's a mystery. At a recent conference we talked about it.
'There are a couple new diseases. Bees are stressed from being carted all over the country. Insecticides are used more and more on farmland. Mites have been a real problem since the early 1980s. I think it might be a combination of all of them.'
As a long-time gardener and farmer, Davis, too, knows bees. She does not like what she has seen over the past year.
'It's pretty startling,' she said. 'Most of the time they don't find any dead bees. People are frantically trying to come up with something.
'There have been cases where there have been shiploads of bees to California, and when they got there almost all of the bees in the truck had died.'
Nothing has brought this situation more forcefully into public view than the recent PBS special 'Silence of the Bees' as part of the Nature series. It reported that a quarter of the 2.4 million bee colonies in the United States, meaning tens of billions of bees, were lost to colony collapse disorder.
If a cause and cure for this cannot be found, it will be disastrous. Honeybees pollinate about 100 food crops - apples, nuts, citrus fruit, peaches, strawberries, melons and much, much more. Bees are absolutely essential to the survival of flowering plants.
As scientists struggle to grasp for the solution, one thing is known for sure: keep bees as healthy as possible. This can be done at Luscher Farm.
'Luscher Farm is a shining example of what agriculture could be,' Vaughan said. 'There's crazy stuff there. Weeds grow all over, which is great stuff for bees. There's a wetland, and there's plant diversity, which we need because it results in a nice mix of pollen and nutrients.'
Davis says Luscher Farm is an especially good haven for Orchard Mason Bees, which is important since honeybees are apparently the bee species hit hardest by CCD.
'Mason Bees are independent, solitary bees,' Davis said. 'Instead of using a hive, they look for small openings to lay their eggs. If we lose our honeybees, they will be our saviors. Anything the size of a pencil they try to fill, like the spout of a water can or a skeleton keyhole.'
There are lots of Orchard Mason Bees now at Luscher Farm, only you can't see them. They are asleep in tiny cardboard tubes placed in bee houses (very similar to bird houses) built by Davis's husband Don. Come the earliest days of springs, the Masons will emerge from the bee condos and start pollinating orchard fruit.
As good as Luscher Farm is now, Vaughan says it has the potential to be even better. He is in talks with Laura Masterson, owner of 47th Avenue Farm and farm manager at Luscher, and Davis about the possibility of a couple of practices that could be highly beneficial to bee development.
'Luscher Farm is looking at a hedgerow feature,' Vaughan said. 'There could also be an open area for game birds, where baby chicks could thrive and where insects could do really well. Insects are great. Only a few are a problem.'
'The hedgerow is especially interesting,' noted Davis. 'It would be located between fields and it would provide shelter and food for animals and insects and also be a wind-break. It would let nature do its thing.'
When that happens there won't be the silence of the bees. Just humming, buzzing and the sounds of life going on.