Bee the solution

Golf courses frequently come under fire for contributing to the declining honey bee population, but one superintendent believes golf courses could actually help bring them back.

By Paul Sheppard

Read this story in GCM's digital edition

Paul Sheppard displays one of the 20 beehives in the apiary he maintains just 40 yards off the fourth fairway at St. Lucia GC in the British Virgin Islands.
Photos courtesy of Paul Sheppard

Superintendents want to know if an environmentally friendly approach to golf course management and rearing honey bees (Apis mellifera) to help them survive is a good combination.

Absolutely! I managed 17 hives of Africanized honey bees (A. m. scutellata) just 150 yards away from the 14th fairway at St. Andrew’s Golf Club in Trinidad for 10 years and presently control a 20-hive apiary of Italian bees (A. m. ligustica) just 40 yards off the fourth fairway at St. Lucia Golf Club in the British Virgin Islands. I have seen bees living in the trees on the second fairway and rough at Tilden Park Golf Course in Berkeley, Calif., and could describe several other instances of bees living in close proximity to people without being a threat.

The hype on honey bees

“For too long, golf has suffered from the stigma of catering only to the elite and leaving a negative footprint on the environment.”
-- Greg Norman

Honey bees have had a bad name since the appearance of the Africanized honey bee — the so-called “killer bee” — in 1957 in Brazil. By 1990, they had been found in the U.S. in Texas, and continued to spread north. Today they have been found in an apiary as far north as Monroe County in eastern Tennessee.

Not all bees are aggressive like the Africanized bee. There are many docile strains of honey bees such as Italian bees, Minnesota hygienic bees, carniolan bees, and the Caucasian bee to name a few. If you are considering introducing beehives to your golf course, I would recommend one of these more docile strains such as the Italian honey bee.

Urban beekeeping has become increasingly popular, and yields for honey in cities are higher than those for the countryside, possibly due to the diversity of flowering plants. The opera house in Paris has hives; the White House has a hive as do many homes and gardens in London. New York City authorized beekeeping in mid-March 2010, and my hometown of Asheville, N.C., recently authorized beekeeping within the city and declared Asheville “Bee City USA.”

Setting up an apiary

First, make sure that the club manager, the owners and/or committee members understand why establishing an apiary on the golf course property would be a good idea. There is a lot of information out there on the Web about the plight of the honey bee and why we need to help that could assist you in your communications.

I would recommend starting with just two hives and putting them in an area that is well out of play and where there is no possibility that someone will go searching for an errant ball. The area should be clearly posted and, if possible, fenced. In areas where there are bears, an electric fence is highly recommended.

Make sure that your apiary has a water source. Bees need water for drinking and for cooling the hive on hot days. They will find it from the nearest source of good clean water, which sometimes can mean the nearest swimming pool or water feature. If you place a few rocks or branches in a large bowl, saucer or bucket of water (so the bees have something to perch on and won’t drown) and place it in or near the apiary, this will reduce the incidence of unsightly dead bees in the club’s swimming pool.

The hives should face the rising sun or the direction of the most sunshine; in northern climates, this means orienting the opening to the southeast. Keep hives out of the wind and away from wet or damp areas. I recommend that superintendents join their local beekeeping association, but another good way to get started is to allow an experienced beekeeper to set up a few hives in a secluded spot.

You do not necessarily have to locate the hives on the golf course itself because bees typically will forage for nectar within a radius of up to 3 miles, although they have been known to go greater distances of up to 8 miles if there are no nectar-producing plants close by. Bees will try to conserve energy and stores of honey in the hive by seeking and transporting nectar as efficiently as possible.

If you are reducing your maintained turf areas and turning them into natural habitat for pollinators, you are going to get honey bees, wasps and solitary bees feeding on the flowers of plants growing in these areas. Even if you do not have hives on your course, you can be sure that there are bees feeding on some plants. You just have to look at dandelions or white clover in the spring to see who is visiting them.

Sheppard leads a workshop in beekeeping basics in the maintenance facility at St. Lucia GC for 40 local farmers and unemployed citizens.

Stings and other issues

Worker honey bees sting in defense of the hive. For most people (approximately 90 percent of the population), the normal reaction to bee stings is localized pain and swelling. Far fewer people (less than 7 percent) may have systemic reactions such as asthma, hives, hay fever and atopic dermatitis; only 1-2 percent of the population will have an anaphylactic reaction requiring immediate medical attention.

Preloaded epinephrine syringes (AnaGuard or Epipen) are available for emergency use. It would be good to have some on hand and know how to use them in case of a problem. Three to six puffs of an asthma inhaler such as Medihaler-Epi will relieve chest tightness and swelling of the throat. With less severe reactions, antihistamines may be administered by injection or given orally. A rapidly acting antihistamine such as Phenergan is best. Cortisone is also very effective, but takes a few hours to act.

Two-thirds of the crops humans use for food production and the majority of wild plant species depend on pollination by insects such as bees and hoverflies. This ecosystem service, however, provided by nature to humans for free, is increasingly failing.
American Bee Journal

Check with your local town council about regulatory requirements. Local beekeeping organizations and beekeepers also will tell you what you can and cannot do. Here is a little secret: A gift of sweet local honey has been known to gain the approval of nearby residents for the apiary.

Beekeeping and the environment

Are pesticides the cause of colony collapse disorder (CCD) in honey bees? As a golf course superintendent and beekeeper for the last 21 years, I have often worried about this.

I recently attended a seminar hosted by the Center for Honey Bee Research in Asheville, where I heard a presentation by Roger Simonds, manager of the USDA National Science Laboratory in Gastonia, N.C. Researchers there had studied the pesticide residues in beehives (wax, pollen, bees), and the list of pesticides that appeared in their study got my attention at once as I noticed some of my best turf management “tools.” Read the complete study here.

Superintendents are highly trained in the use and application of pesticides, and GCSAA has been very proactive in developing a sustainable approach to golf course management. As the association reported in its Golf Course Environmental Profile, golf courses in the U.S. have increased non-turfgrass acres by 44 percent — an average increase of 9.8 acres — since 1996. I believe that by making some adjustments to our practices and expectations for turf quality, we can make a big difference in our golf course’s environmental footprint.

Much of what has caused the decline in honey bee populations is now known to have links to the degradation of the natural environment that the bees depend on for their survival. But the golf industry has made a concerted effort not only to protect the natural environment, but also to enhance it through the efforts of groups such as GCSAA’s Environmental Institute for Golf, Audubon International (most notably through its Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses) and the Golf Environmental Organization.

The benefits of bees

You may discover that honey bees are so fascinating that you get involved yourself. For me, beekeeping has been the greatest link to my awareness of the environment. Every time I have to make a turf pesticide application I think in terms of how it may affect the bees. This drives me to look for natural alternatives and sharpen my focus on integrated pest management (IPM) and best management practices (BMP) at my golf course. It has been an easy and natural learning curve for me to become involved in environmental stewardship.

The United States has a master beekeeper program in almost every state that would be good to get involved with. Even if you don’t become a master beekeeper yourself, it would be good to get an interested staff member involved or to get a certificate in beekeeping. For international superintendents, there are beekeepers and beekeeping associations in almost every country in the world. Contact your local Agriculture Extension office and they will put you in touch with the right people.

Last November, at the request of the St. Lucia Social Development Fund, I invited a few local farmers, small-scale beekeepers and unemployed citizens to participate in a beginner’s program for beekeeping. I expected around 15 to 20 persons but ended up with close to 40 participants.

With the owners’ blessing, I brought the group out to the golf course to visit the apiary, learn a few techniques for constructing hives and eat lunch catered by the club’s restaurant. So, against a backdrop of deck mowers, skid-steers and other maintenance equipment, we had what was considered by all to be a most enjoyable and informative day.

Having bees on or associated with your golf course has multiple benefits. By spreading pollen from one plant to another, honey bees maintain the diversity and health of plant life. More than 100 agricultural crops are pollinated by honey bees in the United States — a contribution of over $14 billion to the value of production of these crops. It is said that one in every three bites of our food is possible because of bees.

From a superintendent’s perspective, I think that the biggest impact from keeping bees on the golf course — besides helping to save the bees — is the positive feedback from members, players and the public who are interested in healthy and sustainable environmental practices. The bees produce 30-40 pounds of excess honey a year, depending on location and weather factors. It is a good practice to leave enough honey in the hive to sustain the colony during the winter in northern climates, but in southern and tropical climates, the bees tend to forage all year and more honey can be extracted. The demand often exceeds the supply of “golf course honey” I sell, and it is a big boost for member/community relations.


I would like to thank Ed Levi, Diane Almond and Faith B. Kuehn, Ph.D., for their encouragement and support in writing this article.

Paul Sheppard ( or is the GCSAA Class A superintendent at St. Lucia Golf Club in the British Virgin Islands and is a 17-year member of the association.