FARM 23 - Boonstoppel-Pot reaping the bee-nifits of new hobby
BY SCOTT STEPHENSON
They say that every beekeeper has an origin story of Newtonian revelation, and The Rural Voice Editor Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot is no different. The former dairy farmer, current sharecropper and avid gardener has a hobby farm populated with horses, chickens and, of course, bees.
Boonstoppel-Pot had her big realization a few years ago, when she was lying on an unkempt patch of her own lawn. This entomological epiphany led to an increased focus on native plants and backyard beekeeping.
It all started when her partner Jason surprised her with a beehive for her birthday. As they say, when life gives you a beehive, you buy bees. That first colony was from Martin’s Family Tree Farm and Bee Supplies near Wroxeter. One day, as she lay in a patch of uncut grass, watching the bees, she noticed how many other insects were enjoying the lushness of the environment as well. It was full of life. Then she looked at the patch of mowed lawn beside it and saw that no insects were buzzing around in it. Boonstoppel-Pot realized her lawn and all the lawns we create around our homes are deserts for our pollinators.
This was her great revelation. Having grown up in a Dutch community where “neatness” is a way of life, messy lawns were not tolerated. However, Boonstoppel-Pot realized that massive lawns are lifeless and not beneficial to our role as caretakers of this planet. She’s not completely against lawns, though, as long as balance is achieved. “I do believe that lawns should be planned out… deciding what you need for barbecues, space for the children to play and so on. Some cutting is necessary for rodent control around the house as well. But I have discovered that many parts were just being cut for aesthetics and dare I say, status?”
While lawns have long been a sign of status, Boonstoppel-Pot has observed that times are beginning to change. On this changing of the guard, she had this to say: “I am not the only one who now sees a massive lawn as unattractive. When I see people in town transforming their front lawns into gardens, or creating meadows or planting native shrubs, I love it. I think it’s beautiful.” Great gardens lead to great habitats for bees, and Boonstoppel-Pot is here for it. “The reason I get so excited about creating gardens and natural spaces is that I’ve seen how it benefits the bees. After all, feeding on flowers is exactly what bees do to collect nectar and pollen to turn into honey.”
Bee watching has become part of her daily routine. In the spring and summer, Boonstoppel-Pot walks to her garden to see where the bees are feeding that day. Bees practise what is known as “flower fidelity”, in that they only visit one type of flower in any one foraging trip. Gardeners and beekeepers can assist bees in conserving energy by planting large clumps or drifts of a single species in a single area so the bees have less distance to travel.
She also offered this helpful bee watching tip: “When you watch bees, you will see that the pollen on their legs is a different colour on different days, depending on where they have harvested that day.”
Getting started with beekeeping can come with a steep learning curve, and Boonstoppel-Pot feels lucky to have had a diverse selection of resources, like courses on bee diseases, and listening to other beekeepers via the Ausable Beekeeping Club; specifically, beekeepers Henry Damsma, Jonathan Cucksey and Adi Treasurywala. She also read many, many books on the subject, but knows she always has more to learn, and is always making adjustments to her set-up.
Last fall she made sure to feed the bees sugar water so the combs would be full of energy to tide them over for the winter. She started a bee notebook, based on advice from the brilliant Colette Mesher - the Ontario Beekeepers Association Tech Transfer Lead Specialist. Mesher highly recommends writing down notes from each beehive inspection to learn and know how your bees are doing. Boonstoppel-Pot learned how to treat her hives more effectively by watching Cucksey care for his hives. Like all the modern subcultures of farming, this is a growing community. Boonstoppel-Pot recognizes her place in this community as a small but vital one, and her goals are simple. “We need to change our ways and contribute, in however little way we can, to the health of the planet. I am a gardener who became a backyard beekeeper and now, the two are so intertwined, I do not want one without the other.”
Creating a natural environment is essential for happy bees, and different bees like different things. “As a gardener, I grow specific plants for both the honey and native bees.” She grows sunflowers for the sunflower bees (sunflower bees are non-aggressive and non-colonizing solitary bees that pollinate everything in the sunflower family), whereas bumblebees thrive on larkspur, St. John’s wort, and spirea.
Her latest project: planting a mini-forest last fall, which she plans to expand for years to come by adding native perennials and shrubs to create even more habitat for pollinators, and she can’t recommend the hobby enough, calling it transformative. Not only are bees fascinating to watch and learn about, but she feels it has made her a more conscientious gardener. Another bonus: “I eat my own honey on my own sourdough bread every morning and the feeling of thankfulness and provision is a great start to the day.”