Let it bee: Elcona Country Club

Interests in woodworking and stewardship meld for superintendent Ryan Cummings, who has crafted a homey bee habitat at the Indiana club.


Ryan Cummings
GCSAA Class A superintendent Ryan Cummings is stewardship-driven at Elcona Country Club in Bristol, Ind., where a bee hotel is among his numerous projects. Photo by Sam Householder

On County Road 21, a fairly new hotel is creating quite the buzz.

You might as well call GCSAA Class A superintendent Ryan Cummings the builder, owner and caretaker of it. In April, his work was introduced at Elcona Country Club in Bristol, Ind. The bee hotel — a facet of the club’s participation as a certified member of Audubon International — was a labor of love for Cummings.

“We’re always seeing if we can build additional habitat,” says Cummings, 39, a 14-year GCSAA member. “We have three owl boxes, which were used for the first time this year. That’s pretty cool.”

All it took was an intriguing sound for Cummings to increase Elcona’s ongoing commitment to produce a comprehensive Audubon footprint at the property. “I opened my office door in 2014 and heard the noise. I thought, ‘What is that?’” he says. Immediately, he assumed something was wrong. “It was like, ‘What is broken now?’ We have a road that bisects the property, an area that has about 12 different species of wildflowers. I go out there, and the bees were buzzing in the milkweed and black-eyed Susans,” Cummings says. “They’re not very far from the golf course, just off the west edge of the 16th fairway.”

Being anywhere near a golf course was not part of Cummings’ original plan. “I’m a late bloomer,” he says. Cummings went to Purdue University, earned a degree in food manufacturing operations and landed a job that he soon learned wasn’t so tasty. “I was tired of eating my dinner at 4 a.m.,” says Cummings, who worked for a major potato chip manufacturer.

An avid golf fan, Cummings decided he wanted to be in the golf industry in some capacity. So, at 25, he went back to school, enrolling in turfgrass science at Purdue and securing his second degree there.

Superintendent Jim Scott was instrumental in Cummings’ development. Scott, who oversees Birck Boilermaker Golf Complex at Purdue, set the example. “It was watershed management, learning that working on a golf course property is more than taking care of turf,” Cummings says. “It’s managing natural resources and being a good steward of the environment.”

Cummings was an assistant for nearly two years at Elcona before becoming a superintendent for the first time at Plymouth (Ind.) Country Club. He returned to Elcona as its superintendent four years ago. He is a past president of the Michiana GCSA and of the Midwest Regional Turf Foundation. He and his wife, Monica, have two children, Matthew and Zoey.

Cummings developed an interest in woodworking at a young age, a hobby that was handed down from his father, Steven. Those skills now pay dividends at Elcona. “I made a jewelry box in middle school. It might’ve been for a girlfriend; I don’t know,” Cummings says. “I’m planning a dining room table now.”

The nearly 80-pound bee hotel that Cummings built from non-treated scrap lumber resembles a three-story house. Stationed on a retaining wall nearly 2 feet above the ground and mounted on two vertical posts that are buried 3 feet into the ground, the hotel stands nearly 4 feet tall. Cummings drilled approximately 300 holes in various blocks and logs inside the frame for queen bees to lay their eggs. He has no major concerns about the bees (including mason bees and leaf-cutter bees) causing an issue for golfers. “These are solitary bees. They’re very unlikely to sting because there’s no nest to defend,” Cummings says. “We’re providing them a habitat instead of just an old log on the ground.”

Members are kept abreast of the bee hotel, a rain garden that protects groundwater, nesting boxes, ever-growing natural areas and the club’s participation in Audubon’s Monarchs in the Rough program, which is geared toward the preservation of the declining pollinator. All of these goings-on are chronicled on Cummings’ Elcona Country Club blog. He has also hosted a First Green event for 300 middle school and high school students, where the golf course has served as an environmental learning lab.

Cummings’ efforts are noticed. “Ryan works way too hard, puts in too many hours,” says Elcona’s golf professional, Tom Thome. “He cares about the place. He has a lot of pride, a lot of knowledge.”

The interest in his work makes it all worthwhile for Cummings, who wants to stay as busy as a bee when it comes to enhancing the experience at Elcona. “Membership has always been supportive of our Audubon program,” says Cummings, adding that former superintendent Tom Zimmerman deserves credit for registering Elcona for the Audubon Sanctuary program several years ago. “One of our older members wanted to bring out his grandson to see the bees. What we do is definitely a talking point for our members. They’re like, ‘What is Ryan building now?’”

Three or four more bee hotels, that’s what. At least, that’s his plan. “Stewardship is a huge part of what we (superintendents) all do,” Cummings says.

Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.