Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Humble Honey Bee

A few years before Hubby and I were married Santa brought me an AreoGarden for Christmas. I was in Heaven-grow tomatoes in January?? YOU CAN DO SUCH A THING!? I managed to curb my tomato-freak and planted herbs first. They grew and grew and grew. I used all my pruning powers (rather weak ones at that time) to keep the plants contained but by May they were rootbound and starting to die. They were so big I couldn't just tear out and throw them away so I spent most of an afternoon carefully separating roots and cutting the plants out of the little plastic grow pots. I transplanted them to the garden and they flourished.

Years later and countless transplants around the yard the oregano is still going strong. The bush is waist high and a good 2 feet wide. This time of year its in full flower and the bees are loving it.

Generally I don't have a lot of honey bees in the garden-the yellow jackets, paper wasps, and bald-faced hornets seem to have first dibs and the occasional honey or bumble bee is always a bit of a thrill. This year I've noticed quite a few more bees. I have to wonder if someone doesn't have a hive stashed away nearby.
We've all heard about how the bees are in trouble. Between Colony Collapse Disorder and a rise in the use of neonicotinoids (a type of insecticide) the bees just aren't doing too good.  Even in my backyard things have been going down hill-earlier this year 50,000 bees were accidentally killed in a town nearby when flowering Linden trees were sprayed with an insecticide.

Bees are one of the top pollinators out there. Their hard work is crucial to the agriculture business, not to mention the honey industry. Nearly 25% of food-producing plants are pollinated by honey bees! Just think of where we'd be without these little Type A workers.

Its hard to worry about a bug. We see them everywhere so things have to be good, right? But over 20% of hives died during the 2013-2014 winter. That's not individual bugs but the entire HIVE. (A hive contains anywhere from 1,000 to 20,000 bees.) While this is lower than the losses in 2012-2013, and its normal to lose some hives, the amount of loss is still too high to be economically sustainable. 

We're losing the bees.

There are a variety of reasons. The Varroa mite, a nasty little bugger not unlike a flea, that attaches to the bee and sucks out the hemolymph (basically bug blood). Like fleas this mite can transmit viruses, notably the Deformed Wing Virus, which (as it's name implies) causes baby bees (pupa) to be born with shrunken and deformed wings. Mono-cropping is causing issues as it limits the food sources available. Increased use of pesticides (and incorrect applications) have caused massive die-offs. Stress from shipping (needed to move bees from one crop to another), an increase in illnesses, and other environmental impacts are slowly taking their toll.

What can we do?

 Ditch the insecticides as much as possible. If you must use one do not spray during the day when pollinators are out collecting and use fast-acting, short-residue products. For my 1/3ish of an acre suburban farm I've managed to get by with just Sluggo, soap, and vinegar and still have a healthy garden *knock on wood*.

Plant, plant, plant! That's right my fellow gardeners, go get dirty. Shove as many pollinator plants in as you can. Preferably use as many native plants as possible. Bees love water! Add in a simple bee waterer or go nuts. Just remember to provide ton of footing so the bees don't drown. Looking for more ideas? Check out these links:

The Xerces Society :Pollinator Plants
Pollinator Partnership
UC Berkley Urban Bee Lab
Mother Earth News: Bee Gardens
Oregon State: Bring Pollinators to Your Garden

Want to watch a hive in action? Check out Bee Watch.

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