Wednesday, June 26, 2013

It's About the Bees

            Sometimes it's about the bees.
            They're the opposite of the Spanish Inquisition. Everybody expects them. We expect them to be where they're supposed to be, gathering pollen, building their hives, fertilizing crops -- but these days sometimes they're just not there.
            Honeybees are an European import brought to this country to pollinate the crops farmers from Europe planted here. Honeybees play an enormous role in bringing common food items to our homes -- crops like blueberries, applies, cucumbers, watermelons, cranberries. Native North American bumblebees also play a big role in fertilizing fruits and vegetables we eat.
            According to the US Department of Agriculture, about one-third of the food we consume benefits directly or indirectly from honeybee pollination.
            Some six or seven years ago beekeepers began finding empty hives, their bees simply vanished. Commercial beekeepers lost two-thirds of their bees in some cases, 90 percent in some others. A government survey showed a national average loss of one-third of all hives every year starting from 2006. Before that, the casualty rate was closer to 10 percent. The bees simply took themselves off, leaving their hives in completely uncharacteristic behaviors, committing a kind of mass suicide when they flew the coop in cold weather.
            Scientists termed this death spiral "colony collapse disorder" and explored various possible explanations. A combination of factors appear to play a role, including parasites, but the widespread use of commercial pesticides may turn out to be the crucially devastating factor by attacking the insects' nervous system.   
            Bees are one of the "beleagured species of pollinators" that people can help protect in their own backyard, according to Susan J. Weit, a field ecologist, speaker and author of 12 books, who writes on a blog on "home and habitat."
            You can find her recent post titled "Habitat Heroes: making a positive change in the garden" at:
            Many pollinators that help make our ecosystem go are in trouble, Weit writes: "Colony Collapse Disorder is decimating European honeybee colonies, whole species of native bees like bumblebees are vanishing, monarch butterfly populations are in peril, hummingbird populations are experiencing drastic fluctuations."
            The causes include "habitat loss and pesticide use."
            Americans can do something about those two.
            Weit points out that our yards and gardens are part of the natural environment. They're home for us, but they're also habitat for plants, animals, insects, and birds native to these parts -- whichever parts we happen to live in -- and they can play a role in keeping species that we particularly value healthy. Species such as birds, butterflies -- and bees.
            She recommends devoting a portion of our lawn areas to "wildscapes -- gardens that use native and regionally adapted plant species in designs that mimic natural habitat."
            Let some fallen tree branches rot somewhere out of sight. Plant some native groundcovers, herbs, perennials at the edges of things, especially where you grass is wearing out. Just let them go.  
            Let things grow a little wild. Don't cut your grass so often (this is me talking now). Let it grow higher, and let the clover that finds its way into your lawn stay there. Bees like clover. Don't let your lawn service use chemical herbicides or pesticides. They kill the clover, they bees. Cancel the lawn "treatments." They turn your yard into a desert.
             To quote from Weit's piece one more time. "Lawns occupy some 40 million acres of the United States and are some of the unhealthiest habitat around."
            Just growing plants that actually still have those little pollen-bearing flower parts inside their blossoms gives bees a reason to be, buzz around and explore in your garden. Not all commercially developed hybrids have them.
            The world, and life itself, feels more like the real thing when you can hear the occasional buzz along with the calls, complaints, warnings, and evensongs of birds. And when you can see the occasional flutter of of butterfly wings.
            We had bees here recently, climbing inside each of the bell-shaped blossoms on the foxgloves. If you're close enough you can sometimes hear a little resonance, or echo, when they buzz inside the walls of a flower.
            The lower photo on this post is one of the monarch butterflies who planted themselves on our butterfly bushes last year and stuck around for hours, sometimes days.