To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
-- Emily Dickinson, 1862 (?)
Reverie is a mighty tool if you’re a gifted poet with a fertile imagination, as Miss Dickinson was. For the rest of us, however, making a prairie, or even a productive garden, requires pollinators.
What concerns me this spring is that there are so few bees visiting the garden. I didn’t spy a single bee buzzing around the scant pink blossoms on our young ‘Arkansas Black’ apple tree, nor did I see bees anywhere near the two old apple trees in the neighboring meadow that are smothered with blossoms in the waning days of April.
All of us who garden seriously know something by now about colony collapse disorder, or CCD, a long name given to the catastrophic trend first noted about ten years ago of honeybees disappearing from our environment. This trend coincided, tellingly, with the widespread use of a new class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, (or “neonics,” for short) which have come to be used on up to 90% of this country’s corn, canola and soy crops and have been used extensively in Europe. Unlike older classes of pesticides, which were sprayed on crops and which dissipated after a week or two, neonics are systemic insecticides, meaning that they are applied as a coating on plant seeds and are expressed through the dust, pollen and nectar of the treated plant, effectively poisoning any insect that forages on it.
In addition to suffering debilitating symptoms like tremors and convulsions, worker bees exposed to treated crops may experience navigational impairment, meaning they can’t find their way back to their hives. (And without worker bees, the queen bee starves and dies.) Those who do return to the colony may bring lethal doses of the poison in their pollen stores, stores which several generations in the colony could then feed on for an entire season . Bret Adee owns Adee Honey Farms of South Dakota, the largest commercial beekeeper in the U.S., and lost 55% of his bee colonies between spring 2012 and March 2013. Interviewed for the New York Times, Adee explained the effects these contaminated stores have on generations of his bees feeding on them over an entire season. “Soybean fields or canola fields or sunflower fields, they all have this systemic insecticide. If you have one shot of whiskey on Thanksgiving and one on the Fourth of July, it’s not going to make any difference. But if you have whiskey every night, 365 days a year, your liver’s gone. It’s the same thing” (Wines).
Studies also suggest that neonics could be suppressing the immune systems of bees, making them susceptible to diseases and parasites, such as mites, that further undermine the health of colonies. As Richard Sciffman writes in The Mystery of the Disappearing Bees: Solved!, one study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health “actually re-created colony collapse disorder in several honeybee hives simply by administering small doses of a popular neonic, imidacloprid” (Schiffman).
Despite the fact that the European Union has already voted to ban the use of neonics on crops especially attractive to bees in member countries such as France and Germany, the job of proving that neonics are at least partially responsible for CCD in this country has been made extremely difficult by the economics of American agribusiness. Bayer, Dow Chemical and Monsanto, three of the largest chemical manufacturers of imidacloprid and clothianidin, the pesticides linked most closely to CCD, spend millions of dollars annually lobbying Congress to protect their interests, while also applying pressure to the EPA and other government agencies and working to quash studies that link their products to the death of bees. In 2012, for instance, Monsanto bought a research company, Beeologics, that was studying CCD and had been providing findings on the links between pesticides and colony collapse to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So much for independent research!
Neonicitinoids may be the largest single culprit in colony collapse disorder, but there is no doubt that habitat loss also plays a role in the demise of bees, just as vanishing habitat has led to shrinking numbers of native songbirds and other wildlife. Since fully half the crop species in America are pollinated by honeybees, however, CCD is liable to have a much greater impact on us in the short term than the loss of bluebirds and butterflies. It is conceivable that a large portion of our food supply could disappear, if CCD continues unabated.
|Can you imagine a summer vegetable garden with no|
vegetables ripening in it?
This crisis has made me think seriously about steps I can take on my own to mitigate the problem, a process that begins with asking other gardeners to become aware of it, and includes stepping up implementation of my larger goal of building a completely sustainable garden.
Challenge yourself to tick off one (or all!) of these boxes as you make your garden friendlier to bees:
Stop using chemical herbicides and insecticides, especially systemic ones, that can render an entire plant harmful to bees, birds, and butterflies
I remember from my days as a North Carolina Extension volunteer that when we answered the phone to consumers with plant problems we had to keep close at hand a digest of chemical pesticides, some of them quite toxic. It was virtually required by the county agent, who lectured us severely if she heard that we’d been handing out advice based on organic methods and not what she called “research-based” recommendations for lethal sprays and powders. Thank God times have changed!
Nowadays there are many non-systemic, non-toxic brands of fungicide, barrier oils and insecticidal soap on the market, although you may have to use them more often to be effective when conditions favor pests and disease.
Of course, swearing off chemical controls entirely is more easily said than done. Last summer I lost all my squash plants to vine borers, despite the fact that I somehow managed to attempt the nauseating remedy suggested in an organic gardening magazine of squeezing the vine to locate the worm’s lumpy mass inside it and then piercing that part of the vine with a needle. Horrors! Still, I can’t bring myself to dust all the vegetables with Sevin, so this summer I may have to resort to row covers for the zucchini, an alternative remedy which may be labor-intensive but is less like a vegetable-vampire flick.
Cut down on the size of your lawn, thereby cutting down on your use of chemicals
Turf-grass is essentially a monoculture, and wherever you have a single species growing in a mass planting you have a ready-made laboratory for diseases and pests associated with that species. That’s why, in our climate, a beautiful lawn usually represents year-round applications of manufactured herbicides, treated seed and fertilizers, not to mention hundreds of gallons of water poured on the grass when rain doesn’t fall (lawns typically need one inch of water per week in hot weather).
By converting even a portion of your turf to plantings of bee-friendly perennials, shrubs or trees you are supporting critical wildlife populations, reducing pollution, conserving water, and cutting back on the hours you might otherwise spend toiling to keep a large lawn looking unnaturally pristine.
Select plants more resistant to pests and diseases (and thus less in need of chemical controls) such as natives and highly adaptive plants
I’ve gradually come to understand that the most effective way to garden organically is to avoid planting those things that are unsuitable for my particular gardening conditions. To this end I started a garden journal over fifteen years ago and have so far recorded the performances of dozens of plants, weeding out the ones that attract Japanese beetles and aphids or succumb easily to fireblight, wilt, root rot or blackspot.
I also continue to read every book on southern gardening I can find, learning which plants are suited to the Piedmont’s climate and clay and which ones will never be trouble-free. (The Traveler’s Joy* library has a fairly good collection.)
My slow process of self-education gains the most traction through conversations with experienced, home-grown gardeners, along with visits to historic gardens in the region to see what was grown before pesticides or synthetic fertilizers existed. That’s how I learned about figs, for instance, seeing the knobby trees nestled against the southern walls of old manor homes and abandoned houses. While the fig isn’t pest-free, it’s much easier to grow than peach, apple or apricot, and it’s reliably hardy in our zone (given that warm southern wall).
|Fig growing on the south wall of|
an abandoned house in Traveler's Joy*
You may have noticed that I started this entry by talking about my apple tree – a fruit considered to be fairly high-maintenance in South Carolina. So, what’s up with that? I purchased the tree two years ago, after reading one of Anne Raver’s excellent gardening stories about a Canadian apple farmer named Michael Phillips who has spent the last twenty years perfecting organic controls for his orchard. Despite the fact that it doesn’t get cold enough for long enough in Traveler’s Joy* to set many apples, I still thought it was worth the experiment if I could grow just a few of my husband’s favorite fruits (‘Arkansas Black’ is a late-ripening, dark, nutty jewel) while practicing bee-friendly pest control. As Raver reports, instead of spraying with pesticides, Phillips coats his trees with neem oil several times a year. He also plants comfrey within the tree’s dripline. This herbaceous herb is calcium-rich and its flowers lure pollinating bees to the apple blossoms (Raver).
|FK with 'Arkansas Black' apple in|
2012 -- the one and only!
Two seasons ago I found a comfrey plant at a farmer’s market and planted it at the base of my apple tree. This May the plant is fully four feet high, with huge spreading leaves and charming, borage-like flowers of pale blue that do attract bees. The tree continues to be healthy – knock on wood – despite a virulent case of fire blight unleashed in the garden last spring by excessive rain. The blight carried off a crabapple sapling and infested the two old apples and a pear tree in the adjoining meadow before it finally ran its course, but young 'Arkansas Black' was barely touched. As if to underscore the obvious, however, my 'Celeste' fig produces armfuls of luscious fruits sweet enough to eat right off the tree, despite the fact that my rescue-dog Alice has gnawed off all the tree's lower limbs, while the much-fussed-over Malus domestica has yielded exactly one apple in three seasons!
|Comfrey ( a perennial herb)|
growing at the base of a young
Grow plants that specifically attract bees by providing pollen or nectar (see list below)
We’re lucky in the Carolinas to have an extremely long growing season, one which favors flowering summer perennials and annuals that are to a bee what a ‘meat-and-three’ is to a well-fed Southerner. For the bees’ sake, extend the blooming season even more by growing late-autumn bloomers like Joe Pye weed and aster, and winter bloomers like rosemary and crocus.
It’s best for the bees if you can manage large plantings of these favored species, but if you have limited space, just two or three specimens grouped together will still be appreciated.
|Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)|
Black-eyed Susan (Coreopsis)
Bee balm (Monarda didyma)
Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
False indigo (Baptisia australis, alba)
Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum)
Apple tree (Malus domestica)
Catmint (Nepeta faassenii)
Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis)
|Bees love roses -- but hold|
the chemical sprays
Provide suitable nesting sites for bees
My neighbor L. is erecting a blue-bee nest-box in his yard a block away, and has promised to give me a box if I will be a ‘bee-buddy’ and put out the welcome mat for these pollinators. Called ‘blue’ bees (and sometimes ‘orchard blue bees’) because of the bluish sheen on their small, fly-like bodies, Osmia lignaria differ from honeybees in that they don’t function in colonies nor do they live in hives, making honey. Instead, they lay their eggs in holes made in trees by wood-boring insects, or in the hollow stems of reeds. The fertilized female builds a series of connecting chambers in each hole, using mud for the “walls” and packing each chamber with pollen and nectar before laying an egg on the food supply and walling it in with mud. This is why these native pollinators are also called ‘mason’ bees.
A mason/blue bee nesting box purchased ready-made often consists of a block of wood with holes drilled in the wood at regular intervals, resembling a cribbage board. Be sure to erect the box at least three feet off the ground (away from animals) where it will catch morning sunlight that warms and rouses sleepy bees.
Blue bees are especially fond of the pollen on fruit tree blossoms, but will forage on any flowering plant if apple and cherry trees are in short supply. If you’re providing a nest box, go one step further and maintain a shallow mud puddle somewhere in your garden if you want to help the expectant females with their ‘masonry.’
|Study your garden with an eye towards making it more|
'bee-friendly' and eliminating
those things certain to 'scare' bees away, like
systemic pesticides or treated lawns
Raver, Anne. “Totally Green Apples.” New York Times. 16 November 2011. Web.
Schiffman, Richard. “Mystery of the Disappearing Bees: Solved!” Reuters. Thomson Reuters. 9 April 2012. Web.
Wines, Michael. “Mystery Malady Kills More Bees, Heightening Worry on Farms.” New York Times. 28 March 2013. Web.