Scott Witte, the longtime superintendent at Cantigny, became a beekeeper six years ago. His course has six active hives, as well as wild hives in trees.
Having bees seemed like a logical way to enhance plant life on this course in the Chicago suburbs, but the bees also quickly helped Witte understand that everything he did on his golf course affected the health of his hives.
“Having bees made me realize the balance of nature,” said Witte, who has been Cantigny’s superintendent for nearly 22 years. “Why would I want to apply chemicals that would kill my bees?”
And while golf courses have long been scrutinized for their use of chemicals and water, Witte came to realize how the pieces fit together. He began to call his apiarian initiative the “Cantigny Golf Bee Barometer Project” because his bees provide a gauge for the overall health of the course.
Witte harvests honey and beeswax from his hives and believes that the honey and the homemade lip balm made from the wax create a connection with players at his course.
Regular customers ask more about the next batch of honey than how fast the greens are rolling. Profits from the honeybee products sold in the golf shop are returned to environmental programs at Cantigny, which is adjacent to Cantigny Park, a public space with gardens and nearly 3 miles of walking trails.
Sustainability efforts played a significant role at the 27-hole, daily-fee facility even before it became one of the first courses to earn classification as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary in 1993.
From the course’s inception, the focus has been on reducing chemical usage and conserving ground water, while making increased use of effluent water as well as rainwater, which is funneled to the course’s irrigation ponds.
Witte has converted 25 acres of previously maintained turf into no-mow areas, adding ponds, vegetation, wildlife corridors and buffers around lakes, while removing invasive species.
There are also more than 50 bluebird boxes, a purple martin colony, as well as bat, owl and duck boxes that provide nesting habitat for various winged species.
“Every golf course that is built from this day forward has to be thinking 50 years down the road,” said Witte. “I’m trying to make our footprint as light as possible and we’re choosing to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.”
Witte said it’s possible to achieve balance, whether by reducing maintained turf or by expanding wildlife habitat.
“We still have the golfer’s best interest at heart,” he said. “But being more sustainable and cost-effective is better for all of us.”
The Sanctuary Golf Club
Kyle Sweet, superintendent at The Sanctuary, also uses an approach of stewardship every day. The 80-acre course borders J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island in southwest Florida, where 70 percent of the acreage is a preserve.
“We’ve tried to make the golf course seamless as it ties into the refuge,” said Sweet, a superintendent for 20 years. “It becomes a part of the culture at The Sanctuary because people get what we’re trying to do on the island to protect our environment.”
A Florida master naturalist with training in coastal, wetlands and upland habitats, Sweet is enthusiastic about showcasing a solid test of golf against a backdrop of nature. Like Cantigny, The Sanctuary is a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.
“Everything you see here other than grass is Ding Darling [Wildlife] Refuge property,” he said.
The Sanctuary’s signature hole, No. 4, is bordered by Pine Island Sound. Golfers may hear dolphins exhaling in the nearby salt water or see white ibis extracting crustaceans from the shoreline.
Pelicans, hawks and ospreys are frequently released on the golf course by a local bird rehabilitation center, and the course has its own gopher tortoise zone, with at least 30 of the protected species burrowing around the course.
The presence of bobcats, alligators and a variety of birds prompted Sweet to create a wildlife brochure and wildlife pocket guide for golfers. Many members of the private club bring binoculars when they play golf to watch wildlife.
The Sanctuary is also home to nearly a million honeybees. Beekeeper Paul Shannon of “Strictly Beesness” tends the on-course bees in 15 hives, while Sweet grows plants around the hives to feed the bees.
Some 8,000 square feet of turf adjacent to the eighth tee was removed in 2010 and replanted in wildflowers. The hives where Shannon harvests the honey sold in the course’s pro shop are nearby.
“Golf courses have a lot to offer because there are flowers year-round,” said Shannon, who tends bees on two other courses. “Bees and golf courses are a perfect partnership.”
Sweet always has the refuge in mind at The Sanctuary. He has removed 1½ miles of cement cart paths throughout the course and replaced them with pervious aggregate surfaces. The granular material has also replaced areas that were previously mown and mulched.
Vegetative buffers around The Sanctuary’s lakes have helped control turf management nutrients. Sweet works closely with the City of Sanibel Island and receives a best management practices report card each year. For the last two years, The Sanctuary has been 98 percent compliant.
Whenever water is released from the golf course property, testing by the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation measures how the course is doing in areas such as lake and fertilizer management, and irrigation.
“I know that what we’re doing is protecting all levels of the food chain,” said Sweet. “And some of the most respected scientists in the state go over the results with me to understand our methods and how they’re working.”
Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer and a Florida master naturalist who frequently contributes to USGA websites.