Profiles in Conservation

Birds, Bees, Trees, & Zelma

By Glenn Rosenholm

Zelma Boggess knows a thing or two about the birds and the bees, and she’s supporting their healthy populations using her knowledge of the natural world and energy.

She and her husband, William (a.k.a. “Frank”), own and manage the ZZNature Farm in Jackson County, W.V. “We had a 119-acre farm when we first got married in 1963. Our babies came in ’68 and ’69 and we later sold the farm. That’s how we got our capital to build our farm on the two acres. Otherwise, we’d still be there,” she said. “We raised our kids here on the two acres,” she added.

In August 2012 they purchased the 57.5-acre ZZNature Farm at Forked Run, approximately 14 miles from where they live in Ripley.

She said she really enjoys working on their farm, and the natural experience it provides benefits a society that has become increasingly disconnected from nature.

People need to connect more with the natural world, she said. “We’ve gone to specialties so much that we’ve lost our connections with nature. When we go out into nature, we find our connections again, how one part of nature impacts with our lives.”

“When we found this farm, we knew this was good for us and our bees. It is a piece of heaven in nature that we want to protect for future generations,” she added.

She summed up much of her own life story as “country girl goes to college, raises a family.”

“Our children are Patrick and the twins, Jo Anna and Beth Anne. They’re all adults now and have their own children. When you have grandchildren, you think about their future and the world they are going to live in,” she added.

Zelma, a former high school teacher with two graduate degrees, spent much of her career teaching high school, and later, serving twice as a housing authority executive director. She even served as a past president of the U.S. Southeast Region of the National Housing and Redevelopment Organization.

Now that she’s retired, she gets to spend much more of her time outdoors, and that’s how she likes it.

“Nature nurtures you,” she said. “I’ve always found solace in working in the soil and with the land. It’s in my roots. There’s something about digging and planting and watching things grow. It’s like meditating.”

Supporting Bird Populations

In recent years, Zelma and Frank have worked hard to support native bird species, which have been significantly impacted by humans.

“The Native Americans semi-domesticated the purple martins to the point today where they are heavily dependent on man,” she said. “Today, purple martins have to nest near people.”

Of her role in supporting the bird population, Boggess said, “We help get purple martin established in different places. We live on approximately two acres, west of the town of Ripley, which is also a Monarch Sanctuary. At our Ripley home, we host colonies of purple martins that migrate here each March and leave us in July.”

Zelma and Frank also help out in the community. They work with local 4-H groups to establish purple martin housing and provide public education presentations at interstate rest areas in West Virginia and at the Jackson County Fairgrounds.

As the years went by, their support for biodiversity grew. They moved on to support other flying species. “From the purple martins, naturally, we went on to the honey bees,” she added.

Bee/People/Tree Connection

“European honey bees came here to America with the early European settlers. Native Americans called them ‘white man’s fly.’ They could tell when the settlers were moving into their land because they’d be preceded by swarms of bees,” she said.

It is in humanity’s best interests to support biodiversity and, in particular, healthy bee populations, she added.

“Man needs the pollination and the healthful honey. There’s a connection between the forest, the honey bee, and the benefits that the honey bee can provide for man, which include the propolis, honey, pollination, and bee stings.“

“If we didn’t have bees, we’d have to hand pollinate everything,” Boggess said. “In China, there’s a region where there are no bees, and they hand pollinate fruit trees.”

She talked about her role in supporting healthy bee populations locally.

“I’m a member of the West Virginia Queen Producers and the Heartland Queen Breeders who are working to improve the survivability and health of the honey bees. There are queen producers and beekeepers all over the United States. In the U.S., our genetic pool is dwindling. We have some folks who are university researchers working to help bring back diverse species from other countries to strengthen our genetic line, but that requires special permission.”

“We have colonies of honey bees and we are honey bee breeders who provide queen bees with hardy and improved genetics for future survival. I sell the nucleus colonies to other beekeepers to help disseminate the stock of hearty, mite-resistant honey bees,” she added. “They’ve been bred with these traits that are beneficial for their survival.”

“When those genetics are available, it’s important for us as queen breeders to access those genetics and select for the traits that will help them to survive and be productive,” she said. “Survivability is a big factor.”

“My next step is not to do so much production and doing more genetics work with bees. This work will be at a different scale from what I’m doing now,” she added.

Boggess said several factors play a role in reducing honey bee populations.

“Although we have had apiaries in several locations to provide sufficient food, the mowing, herbicide and pesticide spraying, cutting of wildflowers, timbering, and destruction of pollinator habitat were outside of our control until we found and purchased the ZZNature Farm at Forked Run.”

“We still have some loss due to the West Virginia Division of Highways spraying and mowing the wildflowers along the roadsides near our home outside of Ripley,” she added. “We have been unable to effect a change in this damaging process.”

“A lot of bee swarms live in cavities in trees,” she said, adding, “Trees provide insulation and shelter for bees in the winter. It’s a natural place for them to want to make their home.”

Sometimes beekeepers are called to rescue swarms of bees when trees fall due to storms, she added. They have to cut into the tree and find a way in to rescue the bees, trying to do as little damage as possible.

“There are fungi that grow in the forest that contribute to the health of the bees,” she said. “They’re doing research now to see if there’s a link between forest fungi and honey bee health. I want that for my bees. There’s a variety of fungi that grow in the forest land.”

“Honey bees tend to know what’s good for them, better than we do,” she added.

Honey bees get minerals out of the soil near ponds, Boggess said. They look for minerals and tree sap. Besides pollinating tree blossoms, honey bees collect tree sap, which they make into propolis, a natural antibiotic that bees use to keep healthy. They coat their frames and colony walls with propolis.

“Before man made synthetic antibiotics in laboratories, we had natural antibiotics such as propolis, which was purchased from beekeepers and made into antibiotics,” she added. “That’s why honey is so good for you. That’s why people today buy propolis and make it into tinctures.”

Even stings, which are deadly for the bee, can sometimes have healthy side effects for humans, she said. “Honey bees are the only bees that, once they sting you, they’ve sacrificed their life. The stinger detaches from their body, and they die. When you get stung by a honey bee, you get a dose of venom and propolis and a concentrated dose of all kinds of good things. That’s why there’s a practice called apitherapy, the practice of honey bee stings for someone’s health, such as arthritis. They use it to heal and keep the pain away.”

Managing the Land

Boggess said they’ve taken several steps over the years to manage their lands as a diverse habitat for pollinators and wildlife. Their efforts include:

  • Preserving and managing forested areas and new plantings
  • Maintaining native plants and fungi within the forest
  • Keeping one or two brush piles for wildlife and native bees
  • Establishing a fruit tree orchard of disease- and cedar rust-resistant varieties
  • Supplying water sources while maintaining one damp spring area

“The outcomes we want are to provide a diverse and successive supply of plants and food for pollinators and wildlife and to preserve the land and habitat for future generations. We want to protect the clean, clear stream that does not originate on our farm, but if we can ever acquire the unused land it flows from, we hope to preserve it,” added Boggess.

About 49 acres of the property is currently forested, making up roughly 84% of the nature farm. Their land boasts a wide diversity of tree species, including red, scarlet, black, white, and chestnut oak; sugar and red maple; black gum; hickory; yellow poplar; basswood (American linden); sourwood; persimmon; wild cherry; redbud; dogwood; paw paw; and assorted witch-hazels.

They have also planted new tree varieties to provide food for pollinators. The species and numbers of planted trees included goldenrain (9), honey locust (87), black locust (13), lace bark elm (1), Chinese chestnuts (5), northern catalpa (3), hawthorn (16), big leaf linden (10), little leaf linden (25), and sourwood (14).

Planted shrub varieties included wisteria vine, crepe myrtle, vitex, Althea, butternut, blueberry bushes, American plum, black elderberry, magnolia, serviceberry, winterberry, sweetshrub (Calycanthus), American hazelnut, buttonbush, Diervilla honeysuckle, and Ohio super chestnut. They also planted 30 fruit trees in a south-facing orchard cove (apples, peaches, pear, and cherry disease-resistant varieties) as well as blackberries.

She said the planted trees provide a succession of food sources to complement the existing older and developing trees in the forested areas. In all, they added over 353 trees and woody shrubs with cages to protect them from deer.

Zelma described the history of their work, in addition to their extensive planting, to enhance their land.

“In August (2016), it will be 4 years since we started working to improve the abandoned farmland. We felt it was an undiscovered jewel waiting for care and protection.”

“First we cleaned up the land by removing over 30 abandoned tires and metal cans, car parts, etc.,” she added. “We had someone remove the metal and recycle an abandoned house trailer, then burn the remaining wood.”

Next, they sought the advice of their local forester, Larry Six, who came and walked the land with them to help identify the trees and mark the ones they wanted to protect. He prepared a plan for them to follow.

“We manage the land for honey bees and as a pollinator and wildlife habitat to provide a place uncontaminated with chemicals. The outcomes we want are an abundance of uncontaminated plants that provide food at successive times for the pollinators and wildlife on our farm. By making use of the forested and open areas, as well as regrowth areas, we have designed the farm to provide a diverse setting that works in harmony and meets the needs of the pollinators and wildlife.” 

Unfortunately, a devastating tornado hit their farm in June 2015 and uprooted some wonderful trees that will never grow back during their lifetime, she said. Larry Six came in to survey the damage and offer suggestions. They lost poplar, oak, maple, and American linden trees and some sourwood trees. The 40-year-old linden trees were in full bloom, and the beginning blossoms on the sourwood trees were stripped.

“We have had much struggle with the debris cleanup and had to cut up downed trees where we could,” she added. “Some trees will be impossible to remove without heavy equipment that could cause more damage to existing habitat. We had a nesting whip-poor-will just before the tornado, but afterwards the nest and the birds were gone. Fortunately, we have heard the calls again this spring. I was fortunate to get two photos [on] June 19 before the June 26 tornado.”

They also contacted the local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office for support. “Jackie Byars, the District Conservationist, and her staff helped us develop a conservation plan for a pollinator habitat. Though our animals are six-legged livestock and not the four-legged animal farms they were used to, they were helpful in planning and dedicating the farm to conservation. When we mow the fields, our practices are to make manmade machinery operate in the least damaging way, so wildlife can escape. We have sown lots of wildflowers, clover, buckwheat, and sainfoin [Eurasian perennial herb].”

Boggess said she is pleased with their use of the land for the conservation of diverse species of plants and animals.

“We not only host pollinators, but are getting some wild turkeys, and a few whip-poor-wills are making a comeback. We wanted to bring back the bobwhite quail, but were told by NRCS it wouldn’t be possible without open grain fields and fencing.”

“Whip-poor-wills are declining in West Virginia. We will continue the work of debris cleanup where possible. Some of it will be burned where we can drag it into the open, converting to char for soil enrichment.”

Looking back on their many accomplishments, Zelma said, “We developed plans and planted, realizing we may not live to see the maturity of our plan, but so future generations can enjoy this unspoiled forest and farm land and the fruits of our labor.”

For more information about the West Virginia Queen Producers Cooperative, visit www.mountainstatequeens.com.

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