Elk Root Conservation Farm

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Things are Buzzing at Elk Root Conservation Farm

Elk Root Conservation Farm and BDirty Co. are passionate about our “sweet buzzing sisters, the bees.” There are abundant reasons for all of us to care about bees and other pollinators, not least of which because one out of every three bites of food we eat depends upon them. Pollinators are vital players in healthy ecosystems, but their populations are increasingly under threat. For Kate and Ryan, the beekeepers and farmers who founded Elk Root and BDirty Co, the plight of our planet’s domestic and wild pollinators is also deeply personal. “We really love our bees!” says Kate.

Spring Crocus blooms are a bee favourite.

BDirty for the Bees

BDirty Co. makes natural raw honey deodorants (See BDirty’s profile here). The company was born out of a passion for natural health and Kate’s fascination with honey’s natural healing powers. While BDirty is still a joy, Kate and Ryan dreamed of becoming stewards of a conservation farm. This year, they made their dream come true with the founding of the Elk Root Conservation Farm on their homestead in the Slocan Valley. Kate and Ryan are thrilled to announce that all profits from the sale of BDirty deodorants now go to support this project. Elk Root’s inaugural conservation project is a demonstration Bee Forage Orchard and Flower Meadow specifically designed to support honeybees and native pollinators.

Funding support for Elk Root’s Bee Forage Orchard and Flower Meadow provided, in part, by the Bee BC Program; delivered by the Investment Agriculture Foundation of BC with funding from the Government of British Columbia.

The Government of British Columbia is committed to working with industry partners. Opinions expressed in this document are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Government of British Columbia or the Investment Agriculture Foundation of BC.

Kate and Ryan are also grateful for the support of West Coast Seeds and Pacific North West Garden Supplies Nelson, who donated seeds and materials.

Kate, sampling BDirty deodorant at the Kootenay Coop.

Problems facing Pollinators

Pollinators need all the support they can get. Evidence across the world has shown declines in the numbers and health of pollinators. Birds, butterflies, bats, beetles and other small mammals all play roles in pollination; however, the world’s most important and prodigious pollinator is the bee. While the domesticated honeybee is the most famous buzzer, native bees are vital unsung heroes, and they face many of the same problems plaguing their honey-producing European cousin.

There are over 450 species of wild bees in British Columbia! The biggest threat facing bees of all stripes is the loss of habitat and foraging grounds. Wild bees and domesticated honeybees suffer from poor nutrition and limited foraging seasons due to monoculture farms and urbanization. Pesticide use, parasites and disease, invasive plants, and changes in climate and precipitation have also taken a toll on bee populations and bee health.

“In the spring honey bees rely on pollen from trees like this fabulous cedar.”

People and the Planet need Bees!

Pollinators are crucial because over 75% of all flowering plants on earth need pollinators to help them reproduce. These plants provide one third of our food supply in the way of fruits, vegetables and nuts, provide food for livestock and wildlife, provide half of the world’s oils, fibers and other raw materials, and provide countless ecosystem services such as soil building, carbon sequestration and the production of oxygen.

“Fruit Tree Pollination in the spring is such a vital part of the cycle. The gorgeous local cherries and apples we love are thanks to the busy bees pollinating the orchard fruit.”

Plant it and they will come

With habitat and food shortages being the biggest threats to bees, some of the most important things that individuals, farmers and communities can do are to propagate bee-friendly plants and preserve diverse living and foraging spaces. To support pollinators, Kate and Ryan have carefully selected and planted over 150 flower varieties (including many native plant species), and over 200 fruit and nut trees at Elk Root Conservation Farm.

“Muscari neglectum (Grape Hyacinth) is one of our honey bee’s favourite early spring flowers here at Elk Root. These bulbs are planted in the autumn, and if you plant the right variety, they will naturalize into a beautiful spring carpet of colour amongst your larger spring bulbs.”

Keeping the changing climate in mind was very important to Kate and Ryan, and they were drought-conscious in their planning and plant selection. Kate says, “We asked ourselves: how we should plant for the environment and the water resources available?”

When Kate started searching for drought-tolerant root stock for the orchard, it became apparent that some of trees that are well-suited to our area had become quite rare. Many of the trees that have been grafted and planted at Elk Root are unique and heirloom varieties, so one of the added benefits is that Elk Root is acting as a genetic repository for rare plant material and native seeds. Elk Root hopes to be able to share these varieties with all of us to support conservation efforts in the years to come.

Prepping for the demonstration Xeriscaped Bee Forage Wild Flower Meadow. ‘Xeriscaping’ is the practice of landscaping with minimal use of water.

Bee Keeping outside the Box

Elk Root Conservation Farm is also a place to learn and experiment with “outside of the box beekeeping.” For example, Ryan created custom top-bar hive prototypes, and Elk Root’s honeybees had 100% over-winter survival rates in their first season. This is especially exciting considering that honeybee mortality rates were 70% or higher in many areas of BC last winter.

Kate points out some of the experimental benefits and flexibility that arise by being a not-for-profit demonstration farm. “As a demonstration farm, we have the luxury of experimenting and trying things without the pressure of needing to raise honey commercially,” Kate explains. “Some of our ideas may not work on a commercial scale right away; however, we hope that through this experimentation we can contribute to some new solutions that will eventually benefit beekeeping more broadly. We have the flexibility to colour outside the lines, and sometimes that is where bright new ideas are waiting!”

Ryan’s Top-Bar Hive prototype.

What’s in a Name?

Discovery, experimentation and looking to nature for inspiration are central at Elk Root Conservation Farm. The farm’s name is derived from the First Nations term for the medicinal flower Echinacea purpurea. Kate explained that “this remarkable plant was given the name ‘elk root,’ by First Nations people of the North American Plains. It is said that Indigenous people observed sick and wounded elk seeking out the flower, and then began utilizing ‘elk root’ themselves for various ailments.” Elk root is native to North America, is drought-tolerant, and is perennial. Kate points out that elk root also has “a huge landing pad and all sorts of health promoting goodness for our honeybees!”

Bees collecting Elk Root nectar and pollen to stay healthy over the winter

Kate explains that the conservation farm is also a literal elk route: “Countless elk and other wildlife cross the waters at the confluence of the two rivers that border our farm to enjoy the wildlife habit oasis we are conserving.”

Ryan and Kate are planting hundreds of these namesake flowers for the elk and the bees: “Preserving the elk route through natural wildlife habitat conservation projects and improving our honeybee’s health go hand in hand,” she says.

“By choosing not to fence our entire farmstead and just ‘pod’ fence our orchards and gardens, it leaves the natural riverside wildlife corridor open for elk and other animals to roam and graze.”

Discover and Bee Inspired!

Kate and Ryan hope to perpetuate the sense of discovery that their farm is named after. In addition to providing food and habitat themselves, they want to empower others to feed the bees too. Once the orchard and meadow are fully established, they want Elk Root to be a place where people can come and see examples of native flora and drought-conscious bee-friendly plants up close, to draw inspiration for their own farms and gardens.

As Kate says, “imagine if everyone in Nelson planted just one bee-friendly plant in their garden…that would be over 10,000 pollinator sources! What a bee-autiful thing that would be!”

-Nadine BenRabha, True Local Coordinator, Kootenay Co-op

Blanket Flowers are an excellent foraging source in the late summer.

You can follow along with Elk Root Conservation Farm’s development and learn more on their Instagram and Facebook.

References & further information about pollinators and how you can help here:

https://www.sfu.ca/people/eelle/bee_info.html

https://www.pollinator.org/pollinators

https://beefriendly.ca/25-plants-for-bees-in-your-garden/

https://davidsuzuki.org/queen-of-green/create-pollinator-friendly-garden-birds-bees-butterflies/

https://www.wildernesscommittee.org/bees/garden