The buzz about on-course beekeeping

The buzz about on-course beekeeping

There are tangible rewards to beekeeping for golf course superintendents. GCI's Bob Lohmann outlines the value-added benefits of beekeeping at Westmoor Country Club.

January 5, 2015

We’re pretty fanatical around here when it comes to staying in touch with past clients. Of course, we maintain these relationships because it keeps the door open to additional work opportunities, down the road. But we also remain in contact with all these clubs and superintendents, whom we consider friends, because we routinely learn from their experiences, on a range of matters that often help us do our job better.

That’s how we learned about the art of beekeeping on golf courses, and we have Bryan Bergner, superintendent at Westmoor Country Club in Brookfield, Wisconsin, to thank for it.

Our design firm, Lohmann Golf Designs, and course building division, Golf Creations, have worked on and off at Westmoor CC for the past decade.  LGD performed a pretty thorough redesign of the course in 2008, including greens, surrounds, each and every bunker, tee upgrades, fairway re-contouring, and re-grassing plans. The works. The majority of this work was done in collaboration with the longtime superintendent there, Jerry Kershasky. The last time we were onsite at Westmoor, in 2012, Jerry’s able assistant, Bryan Bergner, had taken over.

“One of the things that Jerry, Bob and [LGD senior designer] Todd Quitno did with the redesign here at Westmoor was introduce a bunch of fescue areas — a few of which I’ve turned into wildflower areas,” Bergner told me. “I thought, ‘What better place to put a bee hive, to enhance the wildflowers and create something completely unique for the club?’ That was my first thought: Let’s help Westmoor’s wildflowers, all the annuals around the clubhouse. But there’s turned out to be a much bigger benefit.”

Let’s back up a bit. Apparently, Bryan met Charlie Koenen, the beekeeping mastermind behind, at a cocktail party on the roof garden of some skyscraper — or what passes for a skyscraper in downtown Milwaukee (I can poke fun because I’m a Badger, born and bred). Koenen is a bee expert. Like his fellow environmental stewards here in the golf business, Koenen is alarmed by the marked decline in North American bee populations. He created to market a top-bar style beehive that anyone can learn to maintain, because, according to the, In addition to educating people about bees and beekeeping, we knew it was important to show people an easier way to keep bees.

“So, I’m at this rooftop cocktail party,” Bergner recalled, “and this bee hive is right there — within 10 feet of all the people. I had no experience with beehives, but no one was getting stung and all of it seemed really cool. Charlie just happened to be there that night and we started talking.”

Long story short, Bryan went through beekeeping education during the winter of 2014 and purchased his very own BeePod in the spring. Total cost for the BeePod unit, the bees themselves and a couple protective veils: about $800.

Two thousand and fourteen turned out to be the Year of Bees at Westmoor, the first of many to come, it would appear. Bryan is hoping enough of the honeybees he keeps there will make it through the winter — he has a sort of winter tent where they will ride out the cold weather. If they don’t make it, he will replenish with more bees (cost: $130) in the spring.

So, you’re probably wondering what tangible benefits beekeeping holds in store for the golf course superintendent, aside from doing one’s part to restore endangered bee populations and ensuring the pollination of wildflowers on the property. I’ll let Bryan tell you:

• “Well, the first thing I learned is that bees are pollinating much more widely than I had first thought: within a 2 to 2.5-mile radius. They’ll go as far as 9 miles out. So we’re benefitting a huge area with our pollination capability. All our neighbors benefit too, and we can promote that, because we are a golf course in the community — and all superintendents understand that we’re under the microscope for our chemical and water use.”

• “We have one neighbor who lives about 200 yards from the BeePod. She’s very green minded. To be honest, she’s always had a somewhat tense relationship with us re. our maintenance practices. Well, we reached out to her about the beekeeping and once she realized what it was all about, she was all for it. It changed our relationship with that neighbor completely.”

[For the record, this is not the first example of Westmoor reaching out to the adjacent community in a helping-hand way. During the big renovation, we expanded the pond area on Hole 15 (where the bees are) and created a wetland-filtering system to take on dirty stormwater from neighboring streets. It's helped to improve water quality where those waters ultimately discharge (at the other end of the course, back into the City system) and assisted with stormwater management.]

• “It has helped highlight for members the sort of work we do here [in the maintenance department]. The hardest thing so far has been the education of people on honeybees, the same way I had to be educated. Everyone thinks if you’re stung by something, it’s a bee. It’s usually a wasp, but people were immediately cautious. Are they gonna sting kids and golfers? There was a lot of fear. But once people started seeing me and my staff tending to the pod, in t-shirts with no protection, the barriers started to slip away. We’ve held a couple Beesentations with the members. We spend 2 hours hanging out by the pods, opening the hives, explaining what they are, why we have them, how friendly the bees are. People went away with their jaws dropped.”

“It’s also bridged the gap between our department and the clubhouse. This is something we can all do together, and we do. It’s been like a LEED course [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — a rating system for the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of green buildings and systems], kind of like an ongoing inter-departmental field trip, on site. It’s been a way for a bunch of us from different areas of the club to get their hands on something, together. Great for communication and teambuilding.”

You really have to hand it to Bryan. He has embraced the beekeeping ethos in a huge way (he’s been tweeting about it all year, from @BryanBergner). But he’s also applied that ethos in all sorts of innovative, communitarian ways. For two years now, he’s been working with Operation Dream, a peer-mentoring program for at-risk kids. “The last two seasons I’ve created 2 positions for them: ‘Diamonds in the Rough”’ internships,” Bryan explained. “With the hive being around this past season, I introduced the boys to the bees. I had them interact with it (hold the comb) as a way to show the importance of trust.”
But he’s also struck a blow for golf in the bee world, because golf courses, while they would seem (to us) an ideal, mutually beneficial environment for this type of activity, were not at all on the radar — that is, before the fateful cocktail party.

“Charlie was quite skeptical at first re. the golf aspect,” Bergner said. “He didn’t know anything about it. Let’s be honest: I use things here that will definitely kill bees. So I figured if I could apply these things in a way that would be safe for the bees, that obviously, in my mind, has got to be a lot safer for golfers, the public, the environment. For example, we use neonicotinoids on fairways. So we apply them at times when the bees aren’t active. Of course, bees typically aren’t foraging on bentgrass, but maybe they are in the rough — on clover and dandelion. Those aren’t areas where I spray, but the drift factor is important, so we’ve become that much more careful.

“It’s been a good measuring tool for how we’re doing on the sustainability side. If bees are okay, we’re doing something right.”

A quick word about wildflower areas: Bryan said a single year with the bees (2014) was not enough to fairly evaluate their impact on these wildflower areas. We’ll be interested to keep up with Bryan on this aspect, because wildflowers on golf courses can be a mixed bag. When in bloom, they look great. When they’re not (which is much of the time), they can be regarded as weedy looking. As a rule, we generally suggest fescue in out-of-play areas because, when maintained properly, they don’t develop that weedy look. So, I’m interested to learn whether Westmoor’s wildflower areas will bloom longer with the bees, whether they’ll be more plush and healthy.

We can’t leave this subject without talking about honey. These are honeybees after all.

Apparently, when it comes to the production of honey, the traditional stacked hives are better suited to the task. Bryan knows of one super, in Illinois, who maintains stacked hives and a honey business on the side. BeePods do yield honey, but the design of these units is more about helping the bees themselves survive and thrive. They’re handsome, these BeePods; they‘re actually designed to look like bees!

Superintendents have plenty to do already, but there’s clearly an intellectual, environmental and communitarian upside to keeping bees on course. That’s what I’ve learned from Bryan.  He started with one pod and has two more ready for 2015: “I just hope the bees make it through the winter.”