Tuesday, March 10, 2009

To Bee or Not To Be

In February of 2008, Haagen-Dazs launched a campaign to bring awareness to the plight of the honeybee. Complete with an absolutely adorable website,viral video and a donation program, the company helped spread the word about the problem with Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD. CCD is when (for reasons we haven't completely determined) honeybees abandon their hives leaving only immature workers and the queen. The hive eventually dies out and it is assumed that the workers that leave do so as well. First appearing in the United States, the problem has spread to Europe and Great Britain. In 2007 a beekeeper in the UK noted that 44 of his 70 hives had suffered from CCD.

But why is CCD so worrisome? Because of the critical role the bees play in pollinating our agricultural crops. Albert Eistein once predicted that if the honeybees died out, man would follow within 4 years. Forget the Armageddon that has the planet covered in ice or bursting into flames. Our demise may come quietly with the silencing of the buzzing bee.

What exactly causes CCD is still being studied. In 2007, however, a limited study at Landau University found that bees will abandon their hives when an operating cell phone is placed next to the hive. German studies have also suggested that colonies near power lines show erratic behavior. With an estimate of almost 70 percent of the commercial bee population already being lost on the East Coast and about 60 percent on the West, finding a cause and solution is crucial.

It is also important to remember, however, that the European honeybee is not our only pollinator. Native bees also serve to pollinate our crops. Long before European honeybees were imported to the States, scores of native bees were completing the pollination work quite well on their own. Unlike their European counterparts, native bees tend to live solitary lives, eschewing the comforts and demands of a hive, thus making it impossible for farmers to move them from crop to crop. Native bees, however, with a little planning, can be encouraged to visits and take care of the task at hand quite nicely.

There are about 1,500 different varieties of bees in California alone. Some look similar to their European cousins, where others look more closely related to flies. Many are active earlier in spring than the typical honeybee and can pollinate more flowers because they are faster fliers. In 1996 The Forgotten Pollinators by Buchman and Nabhan, delved into the topic of alternate pollinators for plants and raised the alarm much like Carson's Silent Spring. And today, programs are emerging to help nurture a thriving native bee population throughout California.

At a community garden in San Luis Obispo, California, plot holders are participating in a native bee study lead by Dr. Gordon Frankie at UC Berkeley. By planting flowers that are attractive to bees and forgoing mulching (native bees lay their eggs in the ground and layers of mulch make it impossible for them to dig burrows), the group at Emerson Garden found a whopping 59 different species of bees visiting their plants. Far exceeding their expectations much to the delight of the participants.

Creating a garden that is friendly to native bees is not at all difficult and being one of our most beneficial insects, it should be our top priority. By planting attractive flowers, removing mulches and forgoing insecticides, you can go a long way towards increasing pollination, the production of your crops and the health of our native bee population all at the same time.

For more information please visit Guide To Bee-Friendly Gardens - The World's Star Pollinators


  1. It was after reading about the cell phones some time back that I opted out of getting one. Cell phones are already moving towards a new technology, but I think its important that the technology be a primary focus of the wireless industry, (as apposed to pretty touch screens), since cell phones are in such an abundant use globally its really an issue of some urgency.

  2. I just learned about native bees last week--pretty late to the party. Thank you for the wise tip on not mulching every square inch, and for the link to the Bee Friendly Garden site.

  3. @ Daffodil Planter. Better late than never! Since I have been reading and writing about native bees, I see the topic everywhere. If you had mentioned it to me a year ago, I would have said, "What? Those tiny flies are bees?" I'm glad we all grow as gardeners.