In early spring of 2020, I agreed to speak to beekeepers at the newly dedicated Bee Inspired Garden in Onalaska, Washington. But the raging pandemic slayed the schedule, so I never made the trip.
This past spring, however, a full two years later, I received a surprise invitation to stop by the gardens and photograph bees whenever I liked. Descriptions of outsized patches of crimson clover, Oregon sunshine, and bachelor buttons accompanied the overture. Just the thought of wandering loose among all those flowers made me giddy with anticipation.
The Bee Inspired Garden is near my home, perhaps 45 minutes: a half hour south on the freeway, followed by a hard left toward the mountains. There, remnants of Northwest forest fringe patches of fenced farmland and hills rollercoaster toward the Cascades. About halfway between Seattle and Portland, the tiny towns along the road remain hidden and nondescript, but to me, they feel like home.
After crawling through the town of Onalaska (speed limit strictly enforced) I admired the flower-laced roadsides and blooming trees. Rural roads always remind me of the hours I spent in the back seat of my parents’ car, curious about silos and tractors and cows. I soaked in the roadside wonders while smearing the windows with my Tootsie Rolled fingers.
A garden among the trees
As I got closer, I searched for something — a house, barn, or signpost — anything to signal I was in the right place. With relief, I finally spotted a farmhouse ahead on my left. Trouble is, the little voice who lives inside my dashboard — Samantha, is it? — insisted I had arrived at my destination. But I couldn’t see any destination, just more lovely trees, and the farmhouse on the wrong side of the road.
I found a place to U-turn and went back, passing an unmarked driveway through the trees, and then another hidden by thick brush. But there it was on a post, the coveted number I was searching for. Samantha was right. Again.
A paradise of complexity
I inched my pickup beneath a canopy of trees until the drive stopped abruptly at a closed gate. As I parked, I considered my options for leaving. I could back into a treacherously fast country road with no visibility, or circle about in a pasture. Worry later, I decided.
Within seconds, I was greeted by my host, Kay Crawford. Kay is a bright, lively, diligent beekeeper with a passion for gardening and pollinator protection. We began perusing the plantings right where we stood, then strolled through the gardens closest to the house. A virtual jungle of flowering species grew everywhere, alive with bees and other winged creatures, all of them buzzing, flitting, humming, and clicking.
The breadth and depth of the plantings, the variation in form, and the complexity of arrangement astounded me. The panoply of colors and layered aromas was pure sensory overload.
A buzzing, humming diorama
But nothing prepared me for what came next. Once we passed the house, the foliage of trees, shrubs, and plantings opened onto wide fields burdened with blossoms. The acreage sloped gently downhill, opening upon a vista of distant peaks snuggled tightly against the base of Mt. St. Helens in all her snow-topped glory.
Nothing on the road leading to the Bee Inspired Gardens hinted at what lay beyond the tree-choked driveway. And nothing about the footpath through the roadside gardens hinted at the vista beyond. It reminded me of a diorama. You peek into a tiny hole, expecting to see the inside of a box. Instead, you see another world, exotic and enchanting.
The barn, the honey house, and Kay’s bee house sit on the far side of her home. Beside the barn is the “Gabeebo” surrounded by its own pollinator garden and a handful of colorful top-bar hives. [See September’s “A Slovenian-style Apiary Overlooking a Mountain Top.”]
Woodland on the far side of the barn conceals a small stream that feeds into a pond. The pond, encircled by its own brand of trees and pollinator plants, provides a cavern-like coolness in contrast to the sunny, flower-bedecked slopes. I could have spent the entire day sitting on a stump and watching the water meander by.
A USDA grant and piles of work
Kay spent years planning and developing her gardens. Signs of work — the gruesome, physical kind — are evident from the lovingly crafted buildings to the trim lawns and hand-painted beehives. But in terms of massive flowers, the planting beds defy description. Flowers as far as you can see bedeck the slopes, all of them calling to the bees.
The Bee Inspired Garden is a dream come true for Kay. She envisioned a place where visitors could experience rich pollinator habitats and learn about the complex role pollinators play in our lives and in our economy. Indeed, the gardens provide an immersive experience, highlighting both the pollinators and the plants they depend on.
With an eye for landscaping and a careful selection and placement of forage plants, Kay succeeded at the delicate task of combining managed honey bees with abundant wild bees. And along with the bees, she attracted a plethora of pollinators, including flower flies, butterflies, moths, birds, wasps, and beetles. The fields are delightfully buggy and teeming with life.
Kay selected the plantings to match the local climate and please diverse pollinators. In line with the tenets of pollinator gardening, the blooms arrive in successive waves throughout the growing season. I made three trips this year, and each time the blooming offerings were different.
Getting started as a beekeeper
Kay began to think about beekeeping in the winter of 2017. Like many beginners, she liked the idea of pollinating her gardens and harvesting a bit of honey. The following January, she enrolled in a beekeeping course taught by her local Lewis County Beekeepers Association.
After a lifetime of riding and being thrown from frisky horses, Kay decided Langstroth boxes would be too heavy for a retired equestrian with multiple injuries. Despite being encouraged to start with Langstroths, she opted for top-bar hives outfitted with a few personalized enhancements. By the fall of 2018, she added four AŽ hives and a Slovenian-style bee house.
A hedgerow grant for pollinators
During that first year, Kay began looking for grant programs that might assist with beekeeping expenses. She discovered that the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS) has a financial assistance program that encourages farmers to plant pollinator hedgerows around their fields.
The grant program, administered by the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), is open to applicants with a USDA-registered farm, and is designed to “enhance pollen, nectar, and nesting habitat for pollinators.” Funding is based on the length of the proposed hedgerow plantings and is paid incrementally after each step of the process is completed and inspected.
The grant is competitive. Funding priority is given to ….