Black Eyed Susan is Dominating our Prairie – Uses, Plans, and Lessons to provide adequate honey bee forage

Quick Rundown: ~ 11 acres of prairie planted the end of May 2017 followed by dry hot summer. No noticeable germination of prairie seeds in 2017. Spring 2018 was very dry but the early summer was quite wet. Black Eyed Susan came out in full force by mid summer 2018 followed by spotted bee balm.

This year our prairie is dominated by Black Eyed Susan plants. DOMINATED. Second in command is the spotted bee balm. Ironically, BES was 4% of our seed mix and SBB was 1%. I have found bits and pieces of some of the other plants that were seeded at up to 6-12% of the mix but nothing compared to the black eyed susan. It is an aggressive plant.

It’s also cheery and bright – and a plant we seeded. Unfortunately, it is NOT a good pollinator plant. Honey bees, native bees, and bumbles all avoid it. When we attended a large bee convention, BES was denigrated and beekeepers came to see it as a pest rather than an asset.

We were left feeling dejected. Here our prairie was actually starting to grow and BES was taking center stage. Were we doomed to have an unacceptable pollinator habitat? Well….maybe. Upon speaking with none other than Myra Spivek herself (she’s famous in the bee world…) it became pretty clear that our plan to keep the bees “on our property” was going to be harder than expected.

Myra took a look at our plans and said that our bees should find a lot to be “healthy” but not well fed. Wow!

I pulled up a quick map of the 2 miles radius around our farm to have a look at what is available for food.

Here she is:

Our farm is right in the middle. Surrounded by oak/aspen/hazelnut forest, soy/corn/potato farms, and sparse rural housing developments. There are also quite a few little lakes, swamps, and a river. What will our bees be eating??

A few things are clear – they will be leaving the farm, at least at first. Over time, as our pollinator trees mature, the orchard is planted, and we install some pollinator hedging – the bees will find many reasons to stay on the property.

And that’s a good thing. Our one and only “neighbor” told me he was planning to spray all 40 of his acres for bees, flys, and mosquitoes. Great!!!! What are all the other people spraying??

Eventually we can also depend on the prairie. Black eyed susan is an early succession plant. It comes before anything else because it can. Once the other perennials take root, it will be squeezed out. Not all the way out, but much less than it’s current dominating position.

Black eyed susan has very shallow roots – I pulled a few out to look. It is a tough nugget but it won’t be able to fight off some of the longer/wider rooted prairie plants.

Of the 48 species we planted, only a few are top notch for honey bees but I plan to continuously reseed those species to increase their percentage of the flowers. We will also actively manage the grasses so that they do not overtake and change the prairie to full grass.

Which brings me back to the value of black eyed susan. As an impatient prairie planter, I am grateful it was able to show up and let me know everything was going according to plan. Without it, I may have thought every seed had died and we were going to have to replant.

It is also pretty and happy. It makes a great cut or dried flower and it has medicinal benefits. It provides food for butterflies, birds (who eat the insects attracted to the foliage, and it will eventually die and provide organic material to the soil. So all is not lost! Even if it does not feed the bees directly, it is a step in the process and part of a balanced ecosystem – even if it initially makes its entrance in a less than balanced way!

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