The benefits of bees


Volunteers needed

Murphy Blueberry Farm, Chilmark, is looking for volunteers to learn about and help with pruning blueberry bushes. Please call 508-645-2883 for information and directions.

Slow Food MV: Bee My Honey

Slow Food Martha’s Vineyard hosted an outstanding program February 13 devoted to the honeybee, which included a honey-themed brunch, bee film, and question-and-answer time with area beekeepers. If you have not seen “Vanishing of the Bees,” I recommend finding a future opportunity to do so.

While the film’s primary emphasis is on issues facing beekeeping on the vast scale needed to produce the multitude of our bee-dependent commercial crops, “Vanishing of the Bees” extended the audience’s understanding about the environmental problems that now face these tiny animals everywhere, including the back-yard and garden.

From the 2 May 2010 Observer (UK): “The number of managed honeybee colonies in the US fell by 33.8% last winter, according to the annual survey by the Apiary Inspectors of America and the US government’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS). The collapse in the global honeybee population is a major threat to crops. It is estimated that a third of everything we eat depends upon honeybee pollination, which means that bees contribute some £26 bn [over $42 bn] to the global economy…US scientists at the ARS have found 121 different pesticides in samples of bees, wax and pollen, lending credence to the notion that pesticides are a key problem.

“Flowering plants require insects for pollination. The most effective is the honeybee, which pollinates 90 commercial crops worldwide. As well as most fruits and vegetables — including apples, oranges, strawberries, onions and carrots — they pollinate nuts, sunflowers and oil-seed rape [canola]. Coffee, soya beans, clovers — like alfafa, which is used for cattle feed — and even cotton are all dependent on honeybee pollination to increase yields.”

The beekeepers in the film assert that presence of multiple diseases, viruses, and actual parasites, such as varroa mite, are symptoms, rather than causes of bee problems, indicating that their bees’ immune systems have become very, very compromised.

The beekeepers emphasized over and over that it is the pesticide-laden environments their bees must labor in, in particular “systemics,” that destroy their immune systems, driving them into collapse. The audience learned the term “pestitute”: representatives of pesticide manufactures who promote pesticides and deny environmental effects.

The entomologists appearing in the film support that criticism, although citing other factors, such as monoculture, not only of agricultural crops but also of honeybees themselves, as unsustainable practices leading inevitably to disaster.

Offering a viable alternative to conventional attitudes about bee-keeping, the film included interviews with the keepers of the biodynamic bee sanctuary at Spikenard Farm,, in Floyd, Va., (home also, incidentally, to the celebrated Floyd Fest music festival).

After the film, the area beekeepers took questions, one of which was bounced over to me, about bee-friendly plants and gardens and how to support pollinators. Let’s explore that more fully.

Assisting pollinators in the garden

“Honeybees” are a type of bee that includes species both domesticated and feral. In addition to honeybees, other wild creatures, including beetles, flies, hummingbirds, other kinds of bees and wasps, and butterflies, also accomplish pollination and constitute a critical underpinning of the biosphere.

First, it is crucial to state that routine or pre-emptive pesticide use of any sort in our environment is chipping away at the well-being and functioning of the biosphere that supports us.

Always ask that recommendations for pesticide application from lawn- or tree-care companies be backed up with test results, keeping in mind that poisoned habitat likewise destroys the beneficial organisms that control pests. Presence of a pest does not necessarily require the application of pesticide materials — the beneficials need something to eat, after all. Every pesticide product eventually ends up in our ecosystem, where it combines with every other product that has been used, to become a toxic “cocktail” mixture.

Various life forms responsible for pollination depend on pollen, nectar, and water for themselves and their young. Having a wide variety of trees and plants in flower over the calendar year is an enormous assist in providing these meals, and native plants are superior, in the ecological sense.

Just now in bloom, to name a few “earlies”: various witch hazels, heaths (Erica), red maple, species croci, snowdrops, and parrotia are supplying “bee food.” Pussy-willow, eranthis, and hellebore, followed by dandelion, support early pollinators.

As spring continues, over-wintering biennial vegetables, such as leek, bunching onion, kale, turnips, and broccoli, bloom in the vegetable garden to set seed. They will be covered with early-foraging bees and flies. Consider leaving them in the ground to set seed, when performing fall clean-up. If the varieties are heirloom or non-hybrid, such as Allan Wilder’s “Westport Macomber” turnip, there is your seed-saving opportunity.

As the season progresses, a wide variety of flowering plants and trees support insect life, and also provide protein for hatchling birds. Natives such as wild cherry, black locust, blueberry, and huckleberry are superb, as are the orchard fruit trees. Later, Verbena bonariensis, tithonia, lavender, borage, oregano, flowering onions, and marigold come into bloom and are abuzz with bees, wasps, and butterflies.

If you would like to ensure that your garden is doing its part, grow non-double forms (blooms with individual disc florets visible) of the Compositae, the daisy-flowered plants, such as rudbeckia, echinacea, zinnia, calendula, and sunflower. Unless you are in the cut-flower business, avoid pollen-free varieties. Bumblebees continually nuzzle cucumbers, squash, and melons, as well as rhododendron, foxglove, and red clover.

On the Vineyard, nature usually takes care of the pollinators’ feeding opportunities until the very close of the seasonal year. Do plan to have flowering plants late into the fall. Asters, sedums, garden chrysanthemums, Jerusalem artichoke, fall-blooming native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), winter-blooming heather (Calluna), cool-weather pansies, buddleia — all good possibilities.

Go to keeping for an archive of beekeeping articles from Mother Earth News.