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Young, wild and bee(s): How native areas and pollinators can benefit a course

By |  July 17, 2023 0 Comments
Walt Osborne

Walt Osborne

Areas with native grasses and plants have grown in popularity on golf courses over the last decade. These native (or naturalized) areas are useful, in part, because of the scrutiny the industry faces for its water use. But they’re also useful for promoting pollinators.

“Small areas can have a very big impact, not only on pollinator numbers but diversity and the overall health of the population,” says Walt Osborne, key accounts manager at Syngenta.

Osborne helps to lead Syngenta’s Operation Pollinator, which provides superintendents across the country with the resources needed to establish native areas on their golf courses.

Early on in Operation Pollinator’s history, Osborne’s role was to learn as much as he could about the benefits of native areas, how to implement them on golf courses and then get the ball rolling for interested superintendents.

Now, Osborne serves as the point person for the operation, helping courses through the entire process.

“If (a superintendent) has a question, we make contact, share ideas and try to figure out the best way for them to get established,” he says. “To sum it up, I’m here to help ensure success for those who want an Operation Pollinator site on their course.”

Walt Osborne of Syngenta’s Operation Pollinator says the sight of an actively managed hive on the golf course is becoming more common. (Photo: Walt Osborne; Tetiana Lazunova)

Walt Osborne of Syngenta’s Operation Pollinator says the sight of an actively managed hive on the golf course is becoming more common. (Photo: Walt Osborne)

Get to know the natives

One of several hundred courses partnered with Syngenta’s Operation Pollinator initiative is the Ambiente Course at Camelback Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. Osborne says the courses’ ownership group, Marriott Golf, has been an eager participant since the program’s early days.

“(Marriott Golf) still is (an active participant) and has come forward within our Syngenta group here in the U.S. as an entity willing to answer questions for those interested in the program,” he says.

The Ambiente — which is Spanish for ‘environment’ — has taken full advantage of Operation Pollinator’s resources. After a 2013 Jason Straka-led redesign, the course dropped more than 100 acres of maintained turf in favor of native areas to get ahead of incoming water restrictions in the Arizona desert.

Thom Wilbur, superintendent of Camelback GC’s Padre Course says the decision has paid off. The club has seen a drastic cutback in irrigation and labor. Wilbur explains that the changes have allowed the Ambiente to abide by the plan currently in effect in the state.

“The savings (in water usage) have been astronomical,” he says. “Here in Arizona, we’re going into our fifth water management plan where you only get so many allotted acre-feet of water for your turf. So (the native areas) have really helped us.”

Before its redesign, the course was naturally flat, leading to drainage issues. In addition to 100-plus acres of native plants and grass, Straka lowered parts of the course several feet to create drastic elevation changes and aid in drainage.

Wilbur adds that the reduced turf acreage has helped the club save on labor hours after the areas had become fully established.

“For the past six to seven years we’ve saved a lot because we have just one person that goes out to mow some of those areas twice a year. Other than that, we have tried to just let it do what it wants,” he says.

Get to know the pollinators

The native areas at the Ambiente Course feature plants that are only found in the desert, Wilbur says. The course received aid in securing wildflower seed through Syngenta and its partnership with Applewood Seed Co., which supplies mixes based on course geography and climate.

Its unturfed areas also attract bees. Wilbur says the staff at the course takes more of a laid-back approach with its six-legged friends — only mowing a few times a year and avoiding applications in the bee’s habitat.

Syngenta launched Operation Pollinator in 2008 with the help of researchers at the University of Kentucky. The program has helped establish native areas on more than 300 courses since. (Photo: Walt Osborne)

Syngenta launched Operation Pollinator in 2008 with the help of researchers at the University of Kentucky. The program has helped establish native areas on more than 300 courses since. (Photo: Walt Osborne)

“We’ve gone for a really rough native style in those areas,” he says. “We’re not spraying anything that might harm them. We don’t mow their habitat to avoid harming them. There’s a specific area, approximately a quarter acre, that we have literally never touched.”

That’s an ideal placement for honeybees according to Osborne.

“Out of the normal flow of play, but still visible, that way it’s a shared talking point between golfers,” he adds. “Another good spot is sometimes off walking paths between tee boxes (but still out of play). And then, it’s also important to make sure they’re accessible for whatever level of maintenance the course wants to put into them.”

If beehives are visible, it’s a good idea to alert golfers about the site’s purpose, Osborne says. Whether that’s through a posted notification in the clubhouse, or brochures and handouts explaining the benefits of the course.

“Bees are more afraid of you than you would be of them,” he says. “(Golfers should know that) if you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone.”

Sierra Malnove

Sierra Malnove

Finding the bees

Bringing a hive with thousands of bees onto the course might seem like a daunting task for superintendents without experience with the insect.

That’s where services like the ones Sierra Malnove, owner of Sierra’s Bees in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., come into play.
“Keeping everyone safe (the bees and the people) is a really big focus of my program,” she says. “I don’t want anyone, including maintenance staff who has to do their work on the course, to have a bad experience with the bees.”

Sierra’s Bees rents hives to golf courses across Florida — including high-profile courses, such as PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens and Broken Sound Club in Boca Raton. In addition to providing hives, Malnove offers beekeeping services, so maintenance staff doesn’t need to worry about handling the insects.

Malnove works with her clients to pinpoint their goals for the hives on the property — whether it’s to boost the pollinator population, produce honey or both — and then helps with the installation and setup.

Native areas are crucial for pollinators. Presenting a nearby food source on the course allows more pollination to be done. (Photo: Walt Osborne)

Native areas are crucial for pollinators. Presenting a nearby food source on the course allows more pollination to be done. (Photo: Walt Osborne)

She also makes return trips to provide health checks on the hives, swarm prevention and more.

Malnove’s business only serves the South Florida market. For superintendents outside of that area interested in adding pollinators, she recommends hopping onto Google and looking for nearby beekeeper associations.

“Local beekeeper associations are a great place to start,” Malnove says. “Those associations are going to be connected with all of the beekeepers in your area and will more than likely know someone that can get you on the right path.”

Educate the community

Operation Pollinator is about more than beautifying the course, Osborne says. It’s a great opportunity to educate your members and the public about the environmental benefits your course offers the community.

“It’s visual reinforcement of a golf course’s commitment to the environment and sustainability,” he says. “You can have a piece of paper that says you’re committed to sound environmental practices. But to have actual physical evidence on the course is really a big part of this.”

Osborne adds that these areas also offer opportunities for bringing in outside field trips with grade school children in conjunction with the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America’s First Green program.

At the end of the day, however, Osborne says there’s one vital aspect needed for native pollinator areas to be successful.

“The key factor to success is the enthusiasm of the golf course superintendent,” he says. “I’d say 90-plus percent of their job is growing quality turf, but you see them catch that bug once they get started (with native areas) in learning how to establish and grow these sites and then seeing them develop and change over time.”

This article is tagged with and posted in Featured, From the Magazine

About the Author: Rob DiFranco

Rob DiFranco is Golfdom's associate editor. A 2018 graduate of Kent State University, DiFranco holds a bachelor's degree in journalism. Prior to Golfdom, DiFranco was a reporter for The Morning Journal in Lorain, Ohio


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