You know how the mention of a name from long ago can bring back memories that you thought had slipped away forever? I had that experience recently. Browsing American Bee Journal, this ad caught my eye. It was from the Ernst Seeds Company. That was a name from my childhood. I went to the company’s website: “Ernst Conservation Seeds: hundreds of species of native and naturalized seeds.” This Pennsylvania-based company carries dozens of flowering plants – from Achillea millefolium (Common Yarrow) to Astragalus canadensis (Canadian Milkvetch), and that’s just the letter “A”! The rest of the alphabet lists hundreds more species. Ernst specializes in wetland rehab species, but carries native wildflowers to fit most environments and feed most native bees. (Though, I have to say, I was disappointed when I didn’t find Chamaenerion angustifolium, aka fireweed. Hopefully, they will fix that.)
Shortly after seeing the ABJ advertisement, I heard a Beekeeping Today Podcast, featuring Calvin Ernst, a founder of Ernst Seeds. In a charming interview, Kirsten Traynor talked with Calvin Ernst about Ernst’s Pennsylvania roots. Then I recalled our connection. In the late 1960s, when Calvin Ernst was just starting to raise seeds, he contacted my father, a western Pennsylvania beekeeper. I was a child, hopping out of the passenger side of my father’s big International truck, clutching a smoker. It would be my job to smoke the migrating pollinators. A few years later, I would be allowed to drop the hives along the edge of Calvin Ernst’s purple crownvetch fields myself. Our family was paid $3/hive at the time, the going rate for off-season pollination.
Crownvetch was “discovered” by my first-ever boss, George Sleesman, the director of Pennsylvania Plant Services. Sometime in the 1950s, the state Department of Transportation asked Sleesman to find a plant that might be a good, attractive, low-management creeper to prevent erosion on the deep roadway cuts through the Appalachians. Sleesman, the state’s chief apiary inspector, scoured the Pennsylvania hills for sturdy plants that could hold eroding road embankments in place. Crownvetch caught his eye.
A few years after crownvetch had been chosen as the best conservation groundcover, the Department of Transportation looked for someone to grow the seed. Calvin Ernst was studying at nearby Penn State University. Calvin and his brother Luther decided to take up the challenge of growing crownvetch for seed production. In a couple of years, they had 180 acres of crownvetch and hired our bees to pollinate his fields.
Crownvetch is still sometimes planted, but we know now that it is not native to North America. When Sleesman found it, it had already turned wild in Pennsylvania. Had we known that it was non-native, it probably would have been selected anyway at that time. More recently, we have begun to recognize the many advantages of native plants. (I’ll come back to the pros and cons of native vs non-native in a later post.) Early on, Calvin Ernst became a native-plant enthusiast. By 1990, he learned to grow a wide range of native plant species. Ernst Conservation Seeds now offers hundreds of native plants in its catalogue. Although the company started with crownvetch, today Ernst Seeds can suggest native plants to do the job of erosion control and reclamation.
If you have a few minutes, listen to Kirsten Traynor and Calvin Ernst as they discuss the growth of interest in native plants and Ernst’s role in making such seeds available. You can download the show (Season 3, Episode 26) from your favourite podcast provider, or hear it on the net at Beekeeping Today. I think you’ll enjoy the program.
Crown vetch is interesting; vigorous, perennial, lots of flowers, attractive. But watch out if you think of planting it. It is almost impossible to eradicate once established, and spreads relentlessly. There are patches around my home area, that have ‘escaped’ from a few roadside plantings that were apparently sown by the local hydro company. I never see a single honey bee on it, only bumbles, despite having hives close by, so the (honey) bees do not seem to favour it much. Plant sweet clover instead! Yellow or white, it’s much better in every respect.
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I agree with your assessment regarding crownvetch. It is a hardy, but greedy, non-native plant.
I like sweet clover (as a honey plant). When I kept bees in southern Saskatchewan, it sometimes covered the badlands with sprigs of yellow. (White was rare there.) I even had a large apiary beside a quarter-section planted in yellow sweet clover. It was sown by a rancher on an irrigated quarter, just for hay. I think that was the last large yellow sweet clover field grown in North America. Ranchers don’t grow it anymore. Parks Canada in trying to eradicate it from the grasslands parks, as it is an invasive ‘weed’. Actually, most major honey bee nectar sources are non-native, including all the clovers, alfalfa, canola, citrus, soybeans, and dandelion.
Funny that your blog on this subject has surfaced! I have been thinking of joining the ‘guerrilla gardening‘ movement here in the U.K. I have purchased some wild flowers and am now awaiting the right weather conditions to germinate. Foxglove is my plant of choice…bees love them!
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And say today you had 30 plowed acres to plant and only for bees. What would you choose? Sweet clover seems risky and vetch not much better! Maybe plain clover cover would be best but native plants would make sense too!
Planting just for bees rarely helps honey bees, which easily and regularly fly several kilometres to forage. To attract them to your own property, you have to offer something better than they can find elsewhere. This depends on your climate and soil type – it might be sweet clover if you get lots of sun and have lime soil. Only a few native plant species are attractive to honey bees, but that would certainly help native bees.