The Empress Tree and Honey Bees: A match made in heaven
Honeybees are amazing little creatures with a vital role to play in maintaining healthy ecosystems and increasing crop yields, as well as producing honey and wax. While there are over 4,000 species of wild bees in North America, honeybees are not native and need to be raised by beekeepers. This is similar to how farmers manage livestock. They are relatively easy to raise given the right environment, water, and food source.
However, populations fluctuate up and down as much as 40% per year for many reasons including weather, food supplies, parasites, viruses, pesticides, and simply by virtue of the number of beekeepers in an area. The fewer the number of beekeepers, the fewer the number of honeybees.
It’s widely understood that we must be doing everything we can to encourage healthy bee populations both from beehives and in the wild – our lives depend on it! Luckily, there is a growing interest in beekeeping in rural and urban areas.
Why are bees so important?
Honeybees, like all bees, are important pollinators. They perform the critical task of moving pollen from one plant to another, helping plants produce fruits, nuts, or seeds. Without pollinators, an estimated one-third of food crops around the world would not survive and human populations would experience drastic food shortages.
The Empress tree – honeybees love them!
Here’s where our Empress trees come in. They are very fast-growing and mature early relative to other trees (reaching harvest maturity in 10-12 years). Once they are 3-4 years old, they begin producing beautiful purple/pink blossoms every spring that honeybees love. These flowers are found to be highly nectariferous, producing approximately 0.236 g of pollen in a flower, and approximately 1000 blossoms per mature tree per season. This is enough nectar to produce 113 jars/acre/season of delicious royal bee honey!
Honeybees are attracted to lots of flowers clustered in one area, such as a grove of flowering trees like an Empress tree farm. They, also, don’t compete with the native bees that prefer to feed over more dispersed terrain and varieties of flowering plants.
Pollination is an essential ecosystem service on our farms in Costa Rica where the Empress (Paulownia) trees are frequently intercropped with coffee plants to provide shade and to help attract pollinators (including bees). Coffee yields increase substantially (up to 36%) when there are active pollinators amongst the plants.
It is, therefore, possible to place an economic valuation on the pollination services to estimate the contribution of pollination to the productivity of coffee at the farm level. Comparisons can be made between crop productivity with and without pollinators and the differences are notable.
Some of the Eco-Tree Program farmers in the Southeastern United States are also beginning to experiment with raising honeybees along with their Empress trees as their trees reach maturity. The simpatico relationship between the trees and the honeybees will create an additional revenue stream for the farmers, plus it will have the added benefit of helping to pollinate all the other trees and plants in the area.
Not only do Empress trees provide flowers full of nectar for honeybees to feed on, the lumber from the tree is also a perfect wood for beehive construction.
The lumber has a very high strength-to-weight ratio meaning it is strong, but also very light, making the hives durable and much easier to lift and move around.
Empress lumber is mold and rot resistant, as well as having excellent insulating properties with a high R-value. This helps to keep the hives cool in the summer so the worker bees can spend more time making honey than fanning the queen. This high R-value helps to keep the hives warmer in the winter, too, which is important given winter die-offs in cooler climates is a frequent factor in colony loss in some areas.
World Tree continues to work with our farmers throughout the United States and Latin America to grow the healthiest Empress (Paulownia) trees possible for their valuable hardwood lumber, as well as for all the other local ecosystem services provided by the tree. This includes producing nectar for honeybees and excellent wood for the hives.
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