When Americans come of a certain age, they learn about the birds and the bees. When biodynamic vineyards come of age, though, vineyard owners think back on the story of the bees and the grapes.
If you’ve ever strolled through an organic or biodynamic vineyard, you’ve likely come across a beehive on the property. Depending on your list of fears and allergies, you may have been hesitant around that beehive. But beehives are an important part of organic and biodynamic vineyards, and they always have been.
How vineyards became homes for bees
The story of the bees and the grapes goes back to the early 1900s and Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and scientist who is the father of biodynamics. People who adhere to biodynamics are people who take “a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, gardens, food production and nutrition.” For vineyard owners, that means using natural growing techniques and bringing in a variety of animals to make an entire sustainable ecosystem.
Steiner gave a series of nine lectures on the importance of bees and the beehive to the ecosystem. The lectures are about “the unconscious wisdom contained in the beehive” and how the beehive “relates to the human experiences of health, civilization, and the cosmos,” according to the Rudolf Steiner Archive.
That love of bees translates to organic and biodynamic vineyard owners today, but bees aren’t necessarily required for grape production.
Why grape vines need bees without needing bees
Grape vines are hermaphrodites. They have both male and female reproductive organs, so they can self-fertilize. In short, they don’t need bees to make grapes. The plants around the grape vines, however, do need bees, and those other plants create a healthier environment for the vines.
“Much of an area’s agricultural health depends on nitrogen balance,” Chris Benziger, the brand manager for Benziger Family Winery, told Edible Marin & Wine Country. “Some areas have too much and others too little. Where our concentrations are high we plant crops that deplete nitrogen, mostly grasses. Where there’s not enough we plant nitrogen fixers, often leguminous. Bees are the primary pollinators for both types of plants, all of which seem to aid in the natural replenishment of other important soil nutrients, as well.”
The flowers that need bees bring in other bugs, and the healthy ecosystem is built. When there’s greater biodiversity and balance, there’s less need for chemicals.
“We keep bees because, simply put, in the vineyard, there isn’t just vines,” Alexis Pollier, the owner of Domaine Alexis Pollier in France, tells VinePair. “There’s a whole biodiversity.”
The potential downside to bees
Bees love grapes as much as biodynamic vineyard owners love bees. When the biodiversity of a vineyard gets out of whack and there are no flowers for bees to flock to, they will go after sap and fruit juice.
Bees won’t bite the grapes to get to the juice, according to the University of California Davis, but they will gather on grapes that have a crack or puncture wound from birds, other insects, or natural splitting. The bees will then suck the juice out of the ripe grapes.
“Honey bees will visit vineyards to forage on blooms of grapes or various flowering weeds during the spring,” UCD writes, “but they are considered to be nuisances only when they forage on ripe grapes later in the year.”
But on biodynamic and organic vineyards where there’s a healthy ecosystem, the bees have no need to go after the grapes. In short: Follow the teachings of the father of biodynamics and you will have a healthy vineyard with bees. Knock everything off balance, and you’re going to have a bad time.