With research and a labyrinth of lavender, this Santa Rosa chemist speaks for the bees

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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.

There has been progress. She said when they tested again in 2016 they found the incidence of neonics dropped to 23 percent, although she noted that there may be newer compounds that have come out that may be equally toxic to bees.

Kegley maintains that the best way to protect bees is to buy organic plants.

Kegley does much of her own cultivation and sells small amounts of potted plants and starts at her seasonal farmstand. Lavender will be available in spring.

The farm and farmstand will be open to visitors from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Monday of Labor Day weekend and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the autumn Farm Trails weekend Oct. 13 and 14.

Kegley recommends Harmony Farm Supply in Sebastopol and Imwalle Gardens and Emerisa Gardens in Santa Rosa as good places to buy pesticide-free plants.

“Buying local where you know how it’s been handled is a great way to go,” she said.

In her quest to provide constant forage for bees, Kegley has planted rows of perennials and annuals in a leach field between her house and the labyrinth. She sells cut flowers at the Sonoma Flower Mart in Sebastopol.

“We wanted things that were drought tolerant and clay tolerant because we have pretty good clay soil here,” she said. “And we also wanted the flowers we planted to be producing nectar for the bees this time of year when nothing else is blooming. It’s really dry and the bees have a hard time finding anything.”

She tries to offer a year-round banquet: red California Buckwheat and asters that keep on going and on a hot afternoon in August are covered with tiny long-horned bees with their outsized antennae. Other bee-friendly plants in the garden range from verbena and salvias, which birds also like, to catmint, sticky monkey flower and goldenrod. She estimates she grows some 200 different varieties over the course of the year.

Her cooler at the farm stand right now is filled with amaranth, asters, snapdragons, cosmos, teddy bear sunflowers, moulin rouge sunflowers, bee balm, crocosmia and nigella, among others.

Trees also are a key food source for pollinators, particularly in cities. Unfortunately many of them in urban areas are treated with pesticides that can stay in a tree for years, she said.

At Bees N Blooms she’s growing red flowering gums, lindens and honey locust, both for the farm and for sale.

“We have chosen very carefully what kind of trees we grow,” she said, “so we’re not forced into treating and ruining the organic status and poisoning the bees.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204.

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