Bees create the 'buzz'
The Chicago, Ill., chapter of the National Agri-Marketing Assn. recently visited the Cantigny Golf Course in Wheaton, Ill., to learn about the Bee Barometer Project and how it is improving the local environment while effectively creating the opportunity for positive conversations with the general public.
Dedicated to changing perceptions
Cantigny Golf Course, owned by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and managed by KemperSports, is widely regarded as one of the finest public golf facilities in the Midwest. It also is home to an industry-leading honeybee health program, led by Cantigny’s director of agronomy Scott Witte. The Bee Barometer Project, founded by Witte in 2010, is dedicated to changing public perception about golf courses' roles in conservation and land management.
Showcasing environmental health
Golf courses offer large areas of valuable green space across the Midwest that are ideal for supporting diverse ecosystems with various types of flora and fauna. Taking that a step further, Witte’s mission is to convert non-play areas of courses into diverse ecosystems where honeybees and other wildlife can thrive. His Bee Barometer Project provides assurances that the course environment is indeed healthy.
Linking stakeholders, community
Witte received the Bayer Bee Care Community Leadership Award in 2016 for his efforts to promote healthy ecosystems for honeybees and other pollinators. The award, sponsored by the Bayer North American Bee Care Program, was initially created to distinguish individuals who use their interest in honeybees to benefit a community and has since evolved to recognize the important partnership between beekeepers and other environmental stakeholders in their local community.
Sharing of mission
As a recipient of the Bayer award, Witte received a $6,000 grant to be used to bring his bee care program to other golf courses in the area. Additionally, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation matched the grant two to one to set up a pollinator fund of $18,000 that is being utilized to help promote diverse ecosystems on golf courses throughout the Chicago area.
Negative public perception
Like agriculture, golf courses have long been the target of certain activist groups, criticized for their “misuse and waste of productive land” and as being bad for the environment. In fact, Witte said he often gets “the look” after people ask what he does for a living. Being the director of agronomy for a golf course is just not a profession that the public holds in the highest regard, he said.
Bees foster positive conversation
Even so, Witte has set out to prove that golf courses can truly be good for the environment, and he is using honeybees to prove his point. At Cantigny, a 27-hole public course, Witte has added “beekeeper” to his agronomic duties. He has turned Cantigny into a haven for honeybees not just by maintaining a number of domesticated hives but by introducing several acres of native prairie areas to attract honeybees and other pollinating insects. He also uses the bees as an educational tool for golfers.
The bees have moved the conversation in a remarkable way, Witte said, noting that, these days, he is getting asked more about when the next batch of honey will be coming than about how fast the course is playing and its use of chemicals, etc. He said there is a lot of interest in the bees, and that generates a lot of conversations and positive discussions about the environment and contributions the golf course is making that otherwise might not happen.
Community involvement important
Involving the community is another tool that helps Witte achieve his mission at Cantigny and also moves the perception needle. Local Boy Scouts were involved in planting these new prairie plants at the golf course.
Passion for educating
In his 22 years as the golf club’s superintendent, Witte said bees are something he’s become smitten with. “Honeybees get a bad rap because yellow jackets, wasps and hornets can be so nasty. Honeybees only care about pollinating their next flowers,” he said. Likewise, he is equally excited about educating the public on the important plight of honeybees and why native prairie areas are vital for bee health as well as the health of a golf course.
As a side venture aimed at further funding his efforts, Witte has turned his honeybee enterprise into a revenue center to fund his environmental programs, including the operation’s status as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. Bottled honey and lip balm from Witte’s hives are sold in Cantigny’s pro shop.
Nature is part of experience
Witte quoted a survey that found that 76% of golfers want their time on the golf course to include an interaction with nature and wildlife. They don’t always know why it is they are enjoying a course so much, but upon digging into it further, it comes down to the overall interaction with the course itself, and that includes the interaction with nature, he said.
Conservation of resources is among goals
Witte said these eight acres of prairie plants are one of his favorite places on the golf course. Here, he stands in front of the xeriscape, a style of landscape design that requires no irrigation and little maintenance. He said creating the area required the use of plants that some people might deem weeds but that are useful in attracting honeybees and pollinating insects.
Xeriscapes offer seasonal beauty
As the Chicago Chapter of the National Agri-Marketing Assn. saw firsthand during its tour of Cantigny, in addition to all of the other benefits, xeriscapes provide much seasonal color — something that nicely complements the finely manicured turf grass.
Bees as the barometer
Witte's efforts at Cantingy are changing the public conversation around golf courses. He is using honeybees not only as a barometer by which to measure and prove the environmental health of the course but also to create "buzz" and open the communication door for deeper discussions on the environmental benefits of golf courses -- how they are not wasteful but, rather, strive to conserve precious natural resources.