Protecting Our Beloved Bees
A reader recently asked me to write about bees. Most gardeners are aware that if ripe flowers don’t get pollinated, no zucchini–or whatever–can happen. Fewer people realize that a large percentage of all fruits, flowers, vegetables and herbs are pollinated by bees (helped by other insects like moths, mosquitoes, ants and wasps).
Unfortunately, our bees are beleaguered. If you’ve been baffled by poor fruit or vegetable set on healthy looking plants, you may be seeing the side effects of excess insecticides. For too many years, advertisers (and experts who ought to have known better) urged us to rush out and buy poison spray the moment some poor bug annoyed us. Never mind that over 95% of all bugs are helpful or harmless: If we are inconvenienced by wasps, just zap them all dead. If ants get in your peonies, wipe them out before they get somewhere worse.
By-kill Is Still Dead
Few people actively try to kill bees, yet like most other pollinators, bees are just as susceptible to all-purpose bug sprays as the target pests. What’s more, many commonly used pesticides will kill bees a long way from your yard. Spray drift can carry toxins clear around the block. Sprays that run into an active sprinkler can be carried into the sewer. Downstream, those powerful toxins can kill fish that never harmed anybody’s lawn.
It’s comforting to assume that wind and water will dilute any poison we use before it harms anything unintentionally. However, we are not alone. Millions of home gardeners are out there with us. When we find cause to spray, they do too. The result is deadly. In the Northwest, honey bees are vanishing faster than bee keepers can replace them. Weakened by frequent exposure to pesticides, they succumb to pests and diseases that healthy bees can usually resist. Two tiny pests, varroa and tracheal mites, can devastate a hive, choking weak, newly emergent bees to death before they can replenish their food levels in spring.
Varroa mites have been beekeepers’ nightmares since they arrived in the United States in the late 1980’s. For about a decade the mites were controlled by bee-safe miticides, but by the late 1990’s resistant colonies appeared, initially in Florida, compromising crop production of everything from citrus fruits to vegetables. Resistant strains are now commonplace in the US and elsewhere, though the Pacific Northwest was for years less affected than most of America’s prime growing areas. Beekeepers have been scrambling for years to find miticides that don’t affect colonial bees. There is hopeful evidence that formic acid fumes can kill mites without harming bees.
To experience formic acid at work, place a handkerchief over an active ant hill for a few minutes. Shake off the ants and hold the cloth to your nose for a sinus-clearing experience (great when you have a cold–wow!). Formic acid is quite toxic in concentrate form but fumes that literally melt mites are not harmful for honeybees. Until a safe miticide is found, growers and gardeners alike must depend more and more on native bees.
Honey bees are not native here. Our natives are mainly solitary bees, like Mason bees, which nest alone rather than in hives. Solitary bees do a fine job of pollinating, albeit over a shorter season than honeybees. Even though most and possibly all solitary bees are immune to the varroa and tracheal mites that decimate honeybees, they still need our active encouragement and a clean environment to thrive. Like imported European honey bees, our native populations can be decimated by even light contact with many pesticides.
Certain herbicides can also harm both native bees and European honey bees. Some ecological watch groups have been estimating that the native bee populations are only about 10% of what they were twenty ago for several decades now. That means that in the past half century, we have been consistently destroying about 90% of our native pollinator bees. We didn’t mean to, but that doesn’t alter the fact that they are gone. It won’t be as easy to undo the harm as it was to cause it. Luckily, if we want to make amends, we can.
How To Help
First, if you haven’t already, stop using toxic pesticides and herbicides. Seek organic or ecologically benign solutions |to disease and troubling insect relationships. If you aren’t sure what these might be or where to find them, ask your local nursery. If they don’t know, find another nursery that does. In the meantime, let’s try a little counseling before we kill anything. Every gardener can help protect and welcome bees. Not using poisons is a huge contribution. Also, never spray anything, even environmentally friendly pesticides, when bees or other pollinators are active (usually in midday).
Providing housing also helps, and many nurseries carry Mason bee kits. Like little apartment houses for solitary bees, these are blocks of wood with specially sized holes in them. Some models come with paper straw sleeves, so you can change the sheets after each season’s guests have gone. Most are simple rectangles with utterly regular grids of holes. More artistic models are irregularly shaped, perfect for naturalistic gardens. The bees don’t really have a preference and will use either kind indiscriminately.
Native Bees Are Great Pollinators
In return for your hospitality, Mason bees will pollinate your garden. Though some are wide ranging, most bees have a fairly limited range, so if your neighbor keeps bees, you will probably reap the benefits as well. If you have a large, isolated garden, you may want to invest in a bee keeping kit. Most bee keepers suggest beginning with Mason or solitary bees because their care is very simple. Honeybee care is far more complex and poor bee keepers can add to disease problems rather than resolving them.
If you love the idea of keeping bees, experience low fruit and vegetable production, and want to taste honey from your own garden, contact your local branch of the Puget Sound Beekeepers Association. These kindly and informative folks will give you all the buzz on how to get started with honeybees and solitary bees.
For more information, check out the website of the Puget Sound Beekeepers Association (www.pugetsoundbees.org).
The Northwest’s premier bee source, Knox Cellars, offers books about native solitary bees, orchard mason bees, bee houses, and kits. Contact Knox Cellars at www.knoxcellars.com for information and cool bee stuff.