By Tina Patterson
Spotted knapweed, also known as starthistle, is considered an invasive species in the United States. In Michigan, the eradication of this species has stirred up a controversy between those who want it eradicated and Michigan’s beekeeping industry.
Believed to have first arrived from Europe in the 1800s as a contaminant of alfalfa seed, spotted knapweed survives in dry, sandy soil and most climate conditions. It can be found along roadsides and in former farm fields where it grows in clumps.
Estimated to infest more than 8 million acres nationwide, efforts have been underway in many states to control the spread of spotted knapweed, if not completely eliminate it. This biennial plant crowds out native vegetation and produces a poisonous chemical that deters the growth of other desirable vegetation, like wildflowers and sedges.
Some of Michigan’s beekeepers oppose efforts to control knapweed. Honey flavor is determined by the plant from which bees collect nectar. Because spotted knapweed blooms in late July and early August when many other plants are not flowering, beekeepers count on it to produce the buttery-flavored honey and set up hives near large expanses of knapweed. Considering recent hive collapses, any threat to bees raises alarm for beekeepers. Some worry that if knapweed is destroyed, other more desirable, native flowers will not be as available for nectar and pollen.
However, others argue that diverse natural communities support a range of wildflowers throughout the growing season. Some believe that if natural areas were included in the agricultural landscape that these intact communities could support native bee species of pollinating crops.
Michigan is among the nation’s top honey producers and second only to California in diversity of crops. Some fear that if beekeepers left the state due to knapweed control, the bees needed to pollinate red cherries, apples, blueberries and other crops would have to be imported. This could raise cost to farmers, and ultimately, consumers.
While there are bees at many of MNA’s sanctuaries, knapweed grows at Newaygo Prairie Nature Sanctuary, Karner Blue Nature Sanctuary and Five Lakes Muskegon Nature Sanctuary.
MNA’s policy is to remove invasive species and knapweed falls under that category. However, we acknowledge the concerns of the beekeepers and hope this issue can be resolved.