In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
January, 2010
Regional Report

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Fatsia flowers attract bees to the winter garden.

State of Bees

Every gardener has heard about the plight of honeybees. Too many colonies have been lost worldwide to ignore, even though local populations have been strong in many places. The news about research is interesting to ponder, and suggests steps to take in your own garden to cultivate bees.

Why Bees Matter
Gardeners understand the value of honeybees when we see them at work on vegetables and fruits. Their role extends much farther of course, and according to USDA figures, bee pollination accounts for producing about one third of the nation's diet and is worth about 15 billion dollars to the food chain in the USA. Further, bees account for the pollination of many more flowers and vegetables and thus play a role in seed production as well.

In the widest sense, honeybee pollination contributes to virtually all crops. At the extreme, almond trees in California, for example, are almost entirely dependent on flatbed trucks filled with hives brought to them from across the country. While it's always a good idea to ensure pollination by using a swab to move pollen from one plant to another at home, there's no way to do that in an orchard.

The losses in the commercial bee sector are attributed to a host of causes. Everything from the structure of commercial hives to pesticides to diseases and cellphone frequencies have been blamed, but no research has yet proven definitive. Like so many challenges, the bee issue may be a matter of thinking globally, but acting very locally to improve your garden for bees and perhaps become a beekeeper yourself.

Bee Research
Since 2007, the National Academy of Sciences has kept track of the losses in commercial honey bee hives and has raised a red flag about the decline of other native pollinators like bumblebees. Areas of concern include climate change, habitat destruction, pesticide effects, invasive species that reduce local food sources, and diseases and mites. Currently it is thought that the two are related in that transporting commercial hives internationally may spread previously unknown pests and diseases to the native species in a given area. Bumblebee threats are particularly dire because they are more effective at pollinating some crops like blueberry and cranberry and because they can work at lower temperatures and in less light than honeybees.

Work done on the pesticide angle of colony collapse disorder has focused on the neonicotinoid family which includes clothianidin and imidacloprid. Both have been used in this country and in Europe in farming and home gardening for several decades. There is research to demonstrate that when used according to label directions, such chemicals do not present a threat. Yet the first was banned in Germany in 2008 after 99% of dead bees tested showed its build-up and the second has been banned in France for use on sunflowers since 1999 and is the subject of lawsuits in the US.

The nature of systemic pesticides such as these is that they are nondiscriminatory in the insects that can control. That's why they work to control the whiteflies consuming birch trees and crepe myrtles. The general consensus seems to be that bee hives in stress, for whatever reason, are more likely to collapse than those in current good health.

Supporting Bees
Whether your desire is to simply get your squash pollinated or to save this important species for global reasons, put bees -- honeybees and bumblebees -- into your garden plan. Provide nectar-rich flowers for them year-round and they'll be there when you need them. Sow native wildflowers and clover in unused areas. Choose single, open-pollinated flower varieties of annuals and perennials as well as shrubs and trees for maximum nectar and easy bee access. It's fine to grow the double flowers and brand new introductions, but combine them with the tried-and-true "bee" flowers. The garden will be both beautiful and bountiful for bees.

If your lawn is a water-drinking, weedy mess, consider replacing some of it with these plantings for the bees. Look at the year in flowers as a whole, and try to provide blooms for bees each week. You see many fewer bees in highly tended, perfectly neat neighborhoods. Both the intensive use of chemical pesticides that are used to achieve such perfection and the lack of hiding places for bees in such landscapes are to blame. Large and smaller gardens can reserve an undisturbed corner to encourage bumblebees to nest, giving them a good reason to stay around.


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