The Buzz Around Goat Hill Park
Honey bees provide an invaluable service to the ecosystem, and they can sweeten a golf course environment too
By Parker Anderson
OCEANSIDE, Calif. — Almost every morning, as the sun is rising over Goat Hill Park, I wander down to the hillside above the 12th fairway and sit on a wooden bench to take in the view. The golf course is peaceful and still, but the air is alive. Just below the bench is the apiary where Goat Hill’s bees live. There are eight colonies; a small colony has 20,000 bees, and the population of a big one can run into six figures, so roughly half a million bees now call Goat Hill home.
I love to watch these industrious, magical creatures begin their morning routine. They are an incredible model of community, each bee working selflessly for the greater good. It is an analogy that fits well with the golfing community that has grown up around this beloved municipal course. The bee boxes are a good aiming point on the dogleg 12th hole, giving the bees a visible connection to the course itself.
As Goat Hill’s beekeeper, I am often up on the hillside, in my veil and bee-proof jacket. Bees can sense stress and fear, and they become more aggressive based on the mood of the humans nearby. Working with a colony requires a lot of mindfulness. Goat Hill golfers are unbothered by the bees, though if they hit their tee shots on 12 too straight and wind up on the hill, they are happy to invoke Rule 16 and take a free drop.
It is significant that bees and golfers coexist so seamlessly at Goat Hill. Based on golf’s sometimes questionable environmental history, it’s hard to imagine the game can be a mechanism that will help address the ecological crises we face today. That is precisely the vision and purpose of Greener Golf. The value that golf courses can provide to their communities and ecosystems is boundless. Reconnecting with nature through golf provides the framework for how we can reconnect with nature as a society. Valuable concepts and activities such as reciprocity with nature, activity-based community education, partnerships with ecosystems and providing enjoyment through environmental stewardship are all tenants of the Greener Golf model, which strives to take us far beyond sustainability.
A partnership that helps move us toward a more positive future is our relationship with pollinators, and more specifically, honey bees. Bees are threatened by loss of habitat, chemical exposure, vulnerability to mites and a number of other factors that are accelerated by climate issues. It is critically important to support pollinators as we are facing a potential collapse of our agricultural system. One of every three bites of food we take relies on the pollination services of bees and other pollinators. Golf courses, with their vast expanses of irrigated acres of vegetation, can provide much more than a recreational experience. They can provide valuable habitat and forage for our partners, the bees. My experience at Goat Hill Park is an example of this.
I’m a golfer and a beekeeper, and I have been involved in pollinator protection efforts for many years. While playing in an event at Goat Hill a few years ago, I noticed several colonies of honey bees living in irrigation boxes and swarming around the course. Bees move into irrigation boxes because the small opening and the size of the space is similar to the ideal nesting cavity size of a tree hollow or something similar. Bees in irrigation boxes pose a threat to golfers (and a liability to course operators) because of their proximity to play. Also, when bees reside in irrigation boxes or in squirrel dens in the ground, they have to fend off ants, mites, moths and other pests that can make them even more agitated … and dangerous.
So this story is about how we turned a threat or potential liability into an opportunity and a partnership. I approached John Ashworth, the owner of Goat Hill, and recommended relocating the bees and creating an apiary to safely care for, protect and coexist with them on the property.
Often, the mentality we have in golf (and society in general) is to subdue and manage nature, to keep it separate. So using a principle of permaculture, we integrated rather than segregated and recognized the value of the biodiversity present. Nature and especially bees do not recognize property and mowing lines, so evolving our thinking to include them in our management is a way to partner with and coexist. I carefully moved the bees to a location that was established as the Goat Hill apiary. Pictured below are two benches in the apiary. On the benches are one to four boxes, each of which contains a queen and a honey-bee colony. (Each queen is named after a legendary female golfer.) Once a colony is established, the bees require little attention other than to monitor the condition of the colony.
For several reasons, I often refer to bees as “the trojan horse of sustainability.” Those include:
• In addition to being identified by the EarthWatch Institute as the “most important living beings on the planet” because our agricultural system rests largely on their shoulders, bees are an indicator species, meaning that an area with healthy bees is an indicator of a healthy ecosystem. So having healthy bees helps demonstrate the sustainability of a golf course.
• If bees are valued on a golf course property, their protection is considered in decision-making. Reducing if not eliminating chemical use and considering safer alternatives becomes a consideration.
• In order to further benefit the bees and promote their health, out-of-play areas are planted with bee-friendly foliage. The diagram below depicts a flowering calendar, showing bloom times throughout the year and ensuring that food is always available for bees. Some areas of Goat Hill that were underutilized were planted with wildflowers and perennial plants to provide forage and a habitat for a large group of beneficial species. Humans rely heavily on honey bees as a key component of our agricultural system; without them we would be in a food crisis. Planting wildflowers also supports honey bees as well as a wide variety of native pollinators.
• Keeping bees is helping Goat Hill build bridges with the community. Some organizations with environmental goals view golf courses as opponents to their mission. By demonstrating the ability of the golf course to serve the community as a pollinator sanctuary and bee bank, many of those potential opponents are now allies with the golf course.
• Supporting pollinators creates opportunities for education and sharing. At times over the course of the year, bees produce a surplus of honey, and we can sometimes share in that surplus. Since ancient times, honey has been considered a sacred gift, and Ashworth recently gave a jar of honey to each of the staff at Goat Hill. This gesture served as an additional catalyst for connecting the people to the ecosystem, making them recognize an even greater value of the golf course. Every bee works to support the greater good of the colony, so protecting these noble creatures and learning how to reconnect with nature is a great form of reciprocity and kinship with nature.
Regarding the future, I see countless opportunities as well as great challenges. Bee populations experience alarming annual die-off rates of between 30 and 50 percent. With some of the last remaining green spaces, golf has the ability and arguably the responsibility to support bees. We face a complex future as it relates to the environment, but by teaming up with bees, we have some great playing partners in this game. It is up to us to advocate for them.
You can also support bees by: planting flowers; eating organic foods; eliminating the use of neonicotinoid chemicals; buying honey from local beekeepers; and asking your golf course to support bees.
To learn more about bees and golf, go to Greener Golf Goals of a Sustainable Beekeeping Program.
To support these efforts, visit the Goat Hill Beekeeping Program GoFundMe page. Funds will be used to cover the expenses for the Goat Hill Beekeeping Program.
Join the Goat Hill community in supporting the bees on July 1 for a special Mandatory Golf Friday event in conjunction with the celebration of the birthday of Goat Hill Park. And if you ever need a meditative beginning to your day that will help you further appreciate the hard work of bees, please join me on the bench overlooking the 12th hole.