Planting forage for bees and pollinators

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During the January 2014 Moores Hill SIBA meeting last year, Roy Ballard from Purdue, and Tim Schwipps from the USDA-NRCS came and spoke about planting forage for bees and other pollinators. They made clear that there can be help available at both the state and local levels. I decided to pursue things since I had 1.5 acres that I wanted to do something with and I felt if it meant having some more honey in the hives, as well as some pretty flowers to look out at on my back hill, let's try it out.

After exhausting all options, I found that having only 1.5 acres did not entitle me to any assistance. This is always changing, so don't let this discourage you. I know there were a few others in our club that did get assistance since they had more land to work with. To be clear, the state DOES want you to reserve land for wildlife and in many cases, they will help finance some of your materials and effort. You just have to look around and contact the right people who know. I continued to pursue my goals and bank-roll myself since it was only 1.5 acres. Here is my story, and the steps I took. Keep in mind, I will be describing my specific plans in hopes that it can be helpful to someone else. Just be sure to make your own plan before executing.

I'm in Dearborn county and the result of my searches connected me with Chris Grauel who was extremely helpful, and my guide during this entire process.

Chris Grauel, Wildlife Biologist
IDNR/Division of Fish & Wildlife
2010 S. State Hwy. 3
North Vernon, IN 47265-7950
(812) 352-8486


Drilling for soil samples. I dug down 8 inches and pulled samples from three spots on the hill.

I mixed that soil together, let dry and prepared the samples for the lab.

Chris treated me just as if I was someone who was seeding 100 acres of land. He came out and took a look, offered advice and followed up with a detailed step-by-step plan... including a burn plan for my specific area. He also pulled applications for me and made me aware that I needed to contact the right people (local fire, neighbors, etc. at the right time before burning. If you do something like this, definitely have a single point of contact like Chris.

Susan Knowles also accompanied Chris on the visit to my property and she too made many suggestions, and directed me to potential resources... including where to look for wildflower and other seed mixes. Susan suggested depending on my timing, she may be able to add my seed order on with someone else who was getting a larger order. It didn't pan out for me... but it was something to look in to for someone like me not sowing 10+ acres.

Susan M. Knowles, Wildlife Biologist Private Lands
Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge
12985 E US Highway 50
Seymour, IN 47274


Tilling a 4-5 foot wide burn barrier.

Another key player for me was Vickie Smith at Dearborn County SWCD. When I was getting quotes for 8k worth of fertilizer, she directed me to Laughery Valley Co-op. suggesting I could get it there more reasonable. For my situation, bulk fertilizer, from Laughery Valley Co-op ran me $850 – 975.00 per ton (2,000 lbs.). They mix what you need into a buggy that you can pull home behind your truck, but then you do need a tractor with a PTO to spread it. I didn't have the tractor and elected to have them drop it off to me, and spread it with the help of my brother-in-law who had a smaller tractor and a 500lb. spreader (see pictures). She also reminded me that lime should be applied in the fall before you seed. It will take the lime six months to make a difference, unless you purchase pelleted lime that works more quickly.

Vickie A. Smith, Environmental Technician/Educator
Dearborn County SWCD
10729 Randall Ave., Ste. 2
Aurora, IN 47001
812-926-2406 ext. 3

Laughery Valley dropped off the lime and fertilizer mix. We loaded in a trailer and pulled it out to the hill to load a 500# spreader.

Vickie also sent me the following:

"If you are interested in planting specifically for honey bees, then be sure to get online and check the seed that you are ordering will be what you’re wanting for honey bees… pollen and nectar source… and most importantly, the seeds have not been treated. I’ve attached a good article on honey bees (the article happened to be written by Kathleen Prough, our State Apiarist.)

With the key people identified, let's start with my specific plan outlined by Chris Grauel. Believe it or not, the following is edited for brevity.

--Specific plan for converting approx. 1.5 acres to bee pasture--

The open area is approximately 1.4-acres; of which, about 1.0-acre of the area is slightly sloping (<12% slope) and the remaining 0.4-acre is severely sloping (>25% slope). The vegetative cover is composed primarily of tall fescue and smooth brome grasses; and, danced throughout the field are sapling trees. Herein lies the first step to your process of developing this open area; I would suggest mowing the open area once around May 1st, 2014 to suppress these saplings (i.e., to stunt their height) in order to make later herbicide applications less difficult.

The next order of business is to have a soil test performed. Most any farm co-op and seed store can provide this service for a nominal fee (it was free for me, being in Dearborn county at the SWDC); and, some soil and water districts offer soil tests to landowners or can suggest a laboratory to perform the soil analysis. The results of the soil test should include recommendations for any necessary amendments. I would predict the results will include adding lime in order to increase the soil pH; if so, make the application a few months in advance of planting your seed so it has time to incorporate with the soil.

Flappers, drip torches, and a backpack of water are some of the tools we used to conduct the controlled burn.

Next, you must perform a controlled burn (see my specific burn plan) and utilize a frost-seeding method of planting. The steps would be these:

a. Mow the planting area to a height of about 4-6 inches around the first week of September. Then allow about three weeks, or until the mowed grass has put forth about 6 inches of new growth, and spray the planting area with a glyphosate herbicide. Generally the per acre rate is 1½ quart glyphosate herbicide, 3 lbs. of ammonium sulfate and water. Read and follow all directions, rates and warnings as specified on the manufacturer’s label.

b. Next you will need to establish control lines (firebreaks) around the planting area. These can be accomplished by either discing or roto-tilling a 6-foot wide bare soil strip around the perimeter. These strips can be put in place about one-week+ after the spraying was performed.

c. Anytime between after the firebreaks have been put in place and up until February, a controlled burn must be conducted to remove the dead vegetative debris. You will need to contact me a month in advance for a burn plan. This removal should ensure good seed-to-soil contact when the seed is broadcast. Chris Grauel also lent me all the equipment I needed to conduct the burn, including flappers, drip torches, and water pack. He even dropped it off to me in November, and said he'd pick it back up in March. Wow... what a guy!

d. Following the burn, and between Jan. 1st and February 15th, the seed should be broadcast over the area. Frost-heave (freezing and thawing of soil) will work this seed into the soil for later germination in the springtime.

e. It is likely that, although you have killed the grass in the fall, come springtime new grass plants will appear from seed stored in the soilbank. If this does occur, or occurs over following years, a simple application of a grass-selective herbicide will clean these grasses from within your pollinator planting.

The wind was kind to us. The burn plan told us where to start the burn based on the direction of the wind that day.

However, things weren't 100% dry and the burn job didn't expose enough soil.

As for species selections and seeding rates, the sky is about the limit (and the size of your wallet). I have attached a USDA list of preferred pollinator plants that should offer good guidance with your choices. As I say, many wildflowers are a bit pricey. You may want to consider planting with a majority of clover species and perhaps including a small amount of wildflowers seeds. There are many clovers that would perform well at your site: crimson, red, white ladino, alsike, white Dutch (what grows in our lawns) and sweet clovers. Clovers will bloom throughout most of the growing season; whereas, most wildflowers have a fairly specific bloom period.

When/if you include wildflowers, choose varieties that will bloom at various times of the season. The seeding rates will hinge on the number of different species you select and what species you choose. Generally when broadcast seeding clover the rate should be in the ballpark of 10 lbs. of seed per acre; and, to that you might include about a pound of wildflowers seed per acre – total of 11 lbs. of seed per acre. And be certain the clover seed you use is either pre-inoculated seed or that you apply the proper inoculants to your seed.

If you want the area planted entirely to wildflowers, a general seeding rate is about 5-8 lbs. of seed per acre; 10 lbs. of a good wildflower mixture can cost around $300 to $400 per acre. Planting with several varieties of clovers is going to run you about $50 to $60 per acre.

We used a rotary hoe to further fluff up the compaction from bush hogging. Then I lowered the deck of my walk behind to thrash it up.

I settled for a wildflower mixture from Jeff Dittemore at Bee-Friendly Beekeeping (info below). I paid $35 per pound of seed.

10 lbs. Bee Seed (Wildflower) mix $340

Because my hill was pretty steep, I couldn't disc it without causing a serious erosion problem. This was already evidenced by the 4 foot trough we tilled around the field for our burn barrier eroding already. My method of seeding is frost-seeding. This method probably does cause a little more stress on the seed, but it was my only option. To get maximum soil exposure, I further worked the hill using a rotary hoe lent to me by a friend. It did a good job of breaking up thick tufts of dead grass and material I needed out of the way. After fluffing it up with the hoe, I lowered the deck of my 48" walk-behind mower. This really thrashed everything up and threw it out of the way. I was very satisfied (see pics below) I mixed the seed with play sand at a ratio of 5lbs. of sand to 1lb. of seed to distribute properly. It was broadcast seeded at a seeding rate of 5-6lbs. of seed per acre the day just before a heavy snow! I am happy about that because it helped hold the seed in place vs. a heavy rain that could have washed it down the hill. We'll see this spring how things work out.

Here is the information I've collected on seed sourcing.

Jeff Dittemore
Visit Bee Friendly Beekeeping on Facebook

Mixing wildflower seed with sand. BFBK Seed Mix. ($35/lb. and 5-6lbs/acre)

Purple coneflower 10%
Dwarf sunflower 10%
Lanceleaf coreopsis 8%
Blanket flower 8%
Blue flax 7%
Perennial lupine 6%
Clasping coneflower 5%
Cilantro 5 %
Prairie coneflower 4%
Mexican hat 4%
Basil 4%
Partridge pea 3%
Prairie aster 3%
Annual lupine 3%
Dwarf annual lupine 3%
Crimson clover 2.5%
Lacy phacelia 2%
California poppy 2%
Lemon mint 2%
Cosmos 2%
Plains coreopsis 2%
Black eyed susan 2%
California bluebells 1%
Showy primrose .5%
Bergamont/bee balm .5%
New England aster .5%


Soil exposure after burning. Not really good since we never had the perfect dry day.

All said here is what it took me to prepare and seed 1.5 acres with a wildflower mixture.

About 10-12 hours (not consecutive) of my time digging soil and sending samples to the lab, calling and emailing people to source reasonable tools to work the land, and running back and forth.

$50 paid to someone to come and bushhog my hill.

4-5 hours with myself and brother-in-law spreading lime and fertilizer.

3,659 lbs. of Fertilizer
4,878 lb/s of Lime
2.1 qts. of Glyphosate
4 lbs. Ammonium Sulfate
10 lbs. Bee Seed (Wildflower) mix  = $340

4-5 hours and 4 great friends who came and helped me conduct the controlled burn on New Years Day this year.
11 hours of working with my brother-in-law who generously brought over his tractor to spread lime, fertilizer, and prep before seeding.

The final soil exposure before seeding.

Here are other places I considered for seed. Just adding it here for your convenience.

Laughery Vallery Co-Op
Wayne Jenner sent me the following on their seed mix. ($33.75 lb. and 4-9 lbs/acre
11016 U.S. 50
Dillsboro, IN
(812) 432-5267


Applegate Seed House, "Tom" has a mix for pollinators and I did not get the data.
76 E 700 S
Brook, IN 47922
219-275-3664 or 219-863-2136


After frost-seeding, I will need to keep an eye on the back hill for growth. It's no doubt that I will have the weeds I am trying to eradicate begin to emerge. In my plans, there is a suggestion to go through with a selective herbicide when needed. I do not know what this will be, nor the time as of yet. I also know there are many finger-sized stubs of black locust saplings that want to come up across the hill. I suspect I will be manually removing these as I can. Dealing with the past weeds that were on the hill will be interested and I am planning to allot some effort to try and keep it at bay until the new forage takes hold.

Update May 20, 2015

See the gallery to see the forage that is coming in.

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