With research and a labyrinth of lavender, this Santa Rosa chemist speaks for the bees
For years, environmental chemist Susan Kegley has studied the effects of agricultural insecticides on bees. Her scientific research fed her desire to do something for these threatened pollinators on a more personal level.
Two years ago, the scientific researcher and her husband, former UC Berkeley astrophysicist and astronomer Geoff Marcy, bought 11 acres on the Santa Rosa plain at the base of Taylor Mountain and began carving out from the barren fields an organic flower farm and sanctuary for honeybees.
“I wake up in the morning, and I feel like I've died and gone to heaven, with the land and all the animals,” said Kegley, who grew up in a rural area of southwestern Virgina, where her grandparents had a farm.
Kegley, who also keeps a flock of white layer ducks to devour slugs, is all about organic agriculture because of the deadly effect of pesticides on bees.
Her consulting firm, The Pesticide Research Institute, is wrapping up work on a study involving three traveling commercial beekeepers who annually bring their bees to California's almond orchards. She said they found an association between certain fungicides used on almond trees and the ability of the hives to thrive. A lot of the pesticides will change the immune system of bees, altering their ability to fight off viruses carried by mites.
“It's a downward spiral when you don't have an immune system to fight things off,” she said.
While the Environmental Protection Agency cites a number of reasons for Colony Collapse Disorder - a phenomenon that happens when the worker bees abandon the hive leaving behind the helpless queen and a few young - Kegley believes pesticides are central to the die-off and one of the easiest things to change.
The centerpiece of Bees N Blooms Farm, located on Petaluma Hill Road across from Taylor Mountain Regional Park, is a labyrinth, made entirely of lavender - some 900 fragrant plants planted into concentric circles.
Kegley invites visitors to stop by and take a meditative walk along the half-mile gravel path.
Although it's past bloom with all the harvested lavender now hanging to dry in her garage barn, the labyrinth is still a site to behold as well as experience - not to mention bee heaven when in bloom.
Labyrinths are an ancient archetype dating back 4,000 years. They are used symbolically for walking meditation, rituals and ceremony. Labyrinths are seen as tools for personal, psychological and spiritual transformation.
“We wanted to grow something that is perennial, but we don't have to be futzing with it all the time,” she said.
Kegley planted in December 2016, drawing out her labyrinth with plans she found online. It takes at least three years for lavender to reach maturity. But even though the plants are smaller and cut back, the labyrinth is a beautiful piece of landscape sculpture.
Each of the seven circles features different varieties that bloom at different times, beginning at the entry with English Munstead lavender with its fragrant, cool lavender-blue spikes and gray-green, mounded foliage.
Then follows the White Spikes and the Melissa Lilac, another English lavender. That follows the ‘Royal Velvet' English Lavender, which is very showy with long stemmed, dark navy blue and lavender flower spikes, and the deep violet, ‘Violet Intrigue.' The last to bloom on the outer ring is the commanding ‘Hidcote Giant.'
“They were actually pretty sizable this year, so we're excited to see what it looks like next year,” Kegley said.
They're planted in coiling mounds to provide the drainage lavender requires, and covered with polypropylene row cover to keep down the weeds.
After doing research on pesticides and bees, Kegley decided the best way to really understand bees was to become a beekeeper herself. She's proved a quick study. She's now an officer with the Sonoma County Beekeepers Association and maintains 10 colonies on her farm.
Several years ago, she conducted a bee study for the environmental advocacy organization Friends of the Earth.
She looked at how pesticides used on ornamental plants affect bees, particularly the neonicotinoids, which, even at low doses, interfere with the immune and reproductive systems of bees as well as their homing ability to find their way back to the hive after foraging.
She found that 51 percent of the plants tested at major garden centers in 18 cities in the U.S. and Canada contained “neonic” pesticides. Friends of the Earth used the research to pressure retailers, resulting in Home Depot's decision to require its suppliers to label plants treated with neonics.