Tag Archives: bees

A field of Yellow

Yellow flowered plants will help in your squash patch. It’s that simple. For my very first year of farming, I had no bees. I was there from dawn to dusk, and never saw any. I did have ground dwelling wasps. These wasps worked longer hours than I did, and pollinated the plants. So many instructed me to kill them, but I had a different strategy, I sought to balance the environment.

I did receive one wasp sting when I pinched one under my arm while working, but these are not a deadly or overly aggressive species. I realized that the wasps had begun using my composting planting beds as a home. After taking some time to observe, I looked up videos on how to encourage the wasps to move. It was as simple as placing a large glass mixing bowl over the hole in the ground and removing the bowl a day later. I won’t go into detail about that, but it worked perfectly. They continued to pollinate, but moved their nest elsewhere. I never got stung again, and a more balanced insect population was nurtured in the following years.

I was interested in rehabilitating this parcel, as well as making my squash prolific. I knew it was time to understand bees. I had heard that there were wild honeybee colonies in Hawaii, and I hoped that there might be some in the ranching lands nearby. I learned that bees can see the color yellow, like the squash flowers themselves, but how could I help them find this isolated squash utopia? I learned that yellow was my key planting color, and also to introduce small watering holes for the beneficial insects, toads, and lizards. This was as simple as leaving shallow trays of water near the edge of the squash patch, therefore providing food, water, and habitat as the means to attract them and keep them.

I decided that I could create a beacon of yellow by planting a variety of yellow flowering plants. The beautiful Hawaiian native plant ‘Ilima’ (Scientific name: Sida fallax. Family: Malvaceae (mallow family) were nearby, so I studied how to care for them in the book Native Planters of Old Hawaii. I planted my vines around them and left these historic beautiful native plants where they were. I was careful to consider bees and beneficial bugs of all shapes and sizes. I was going to need big flowers (squash,) small flowers (mustard both wild and domestic, tomatillo,) tall flowers (Lemon Queen sunflowers,) beneficial flowering plants (nitrogen producing pigeon pea,) and a tall heirloom variety of marigold) and of course native flowering plants (Ilima.) Together they became a glowing beacon of biodiversity, and a paradise for pollinators, especially the bees.

It wasn’t long until that bright yellow patch lured the wild honeybees. I would watch them pollinate, then fly way back to the ranching pastures over the stone fence. The wasps stayed and continued working, as did a wide variety of parasitic wasps that enjoyed the smaller blooms. Purple leaved Japanese mustard was a particularly fun addition. Not only did I love to eat the steamed leaves, I used these plants to mark the base of the squash plants. This was helpful, as my squash plants lived about two years, and the water and amendments needed to go at the base of the plant. with over a hundred vines crawling this way and that. a plant like purple mustard was easy to spot, and it would send out stalks of flowers too. I’d also plant some bean plants right there at the base of the squash too, especially my beloved lima beans, so that they would produce nitrogen, small bloomed flowers for the parasitic wasps, and of course food for people.

All of these heirloom varieties were given the opportunity to set seed after the flowers bloomed, creating an endless cycle that kept the pollinators satisfied with a year round food supply. I chose plants based on Hawaii’s growing conditions and soil needs, you may choose different flowers and plants based on your needs. Sunflowers can be tricky where I was growing, because of the high circular winds that would knock them down. Seed saving year after year produced plants that were more adapted to these winds. I chose a tall heirloom marigold from California. It was just a few inches taller than the tallest leaves on the squash, therefore being up and out of the vines so to be seen by the bees. I could go on endlessly about pigeon pea, and I often do. As a shrub, it becomes perennial in Hawaii, and it worked as a nematode fighter, windbreak, pollinator attractant, natural fertilizer, food producing plant for animal and humans, and a shelter for the birds during bad weather. With over 17 years of drought, Hawaiian Ilima plants were becoming scarce. There may also be some yellow flowered native plants in your area that you can help out, as they will also help you.

Building Worm Paradise in Hawaii

Being raised on a Wisconsin farm may have given me rather high expectations for soil. Our humble 40 acre farm had deep, rich, black soil that you could sink your arm into, well past your elbow. That was considered “below average soil,” and that is where my false soil illusions began.

My brother and I would hunt night crawlers and all kinds of earthworms for Summer trout fishing. It was rarely much of a challenge to fill a bucket in a few minutes. The biggest challenge was to dig without severing the multitudes of them that squirmed below our shovels. We often abandoned the tools so to dig with our hands. We also wanted our worms to be happy and content in their last hours before they became trout bait. So sever we would not.

Fast forward over three decades and several thousand miles and land me in the Hawaiian islands where you would again find me digging in the dirt in search for worms. The result was quite different, because day after day, I found none. Not a single worm. This was a discouraging discovery that I needed to resolve, because if there were no worms, there would be no farm.

Industrial agriculture, wind erosion, lack of cover crops, multi year drought, years of nutrient depleting sun, and lack of organic materials, are things to consider when beginning a transition plan for a parcel. Though this area was prized for being some of the richest soil in Hawaii, that estimate took into account only soil type, and left nothing to be said for soil treatment.

The summary was easy: there was nothing to temp a worm to take up residence, and every other action on the farm was contingent upon this cornerstone of soil health.

The solution was equally clear: create a worm paradise.

If key players like worms were missing, that was a good indicator that other members of the soil building chain, like soil microbes, were also in short supply. I decided to focus my attention on the actions of one person, and develop a farm plan based around a worm’s favorite location: the compost heap. Creating a farm that was comprised of an organized pattern of composting heaps that would be piled on top of existing soil. The squash crop to be would be planted directly into the decomposing heaps, benefitting by the heavy food source available. The worms would be able to pull nutrients from this moisture and food rich pile, and bring the nutrients deep into the depleted soil.

No-till was an easy choice for methods, because a decade long drought and wind erosion had left little to till. No-till gardening techniques were expanded to a 1/4 acre scale. Between garden and farm in proportion and methodology, this framework would conserve moisture, encourage microbes, worms, and stifle weeds.

three sisters method of beans, corn, and squash, surrounded by reclaimed cardboard.  Soil building and moisture holding cardboard also minimizes weeds
three sisters method of beans, corn, and squash, surrounded by reclaimed cardboard. Soil building and moisture holding cardboard also minimizes weeds

Cardboard created a zero waste solution, along with growing blocks reclaimed from the local hydroponics farm. Together, the cardboard, and both basalt and coconut coir growing blocks would create a moisture holding, shady mulch where worms could hide and soil would form. As pumpkins were harvested, some would be chopped into chunks and buried face down in the mulch. This created “worm buffets” that were also cool hiding places where worms could gorge and reproduce.

The image says it all.  The additions have changed the soil dramatically.
The image says it all. The additions have changed the soil dramatically.

Now a year later, the soil is several inches deep of sweet smelling soil. Just like the days of my childhood, I often dig with my hands so not to risk severing any of the welcome guests that will not become trout bait. An “intensive soil care” initiative was the first move for the farm, and the efforts have surprised even the most hardened of soil scientists. Now reconditioned into a healthy soil system, EM-1, homemade fish emulsion, and coffee grounds are the additions made to the area.


Vines now tumble and interlock with each other, birds, bees, and butterflies circle overhead. Mushrooms show themselves and again disappear into the cycle. The purple worms surface and dip through the paradise that was both created for them, and one that they helped to create. Several tons of food has been gathered from a small, once dusty parcel, giving hope to one more farmer who has spent their first year farming new soil.

The mini-farm at 10 months old
The mini-farm at 10 months old