In the Garden with Miriam Jabour|Bee-friend the bees: Insects are critical link to food chain

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 17, 2009

Bees have long played an important role in the prosperity of our state. Cotton, soybeans, fruit trees and most of our vegetable crops need insect pollinators for good yields.

A decade ago, I wrote that local bees were in trouble. Former resident Tom Wright, a successful backyard gardener and beekeeper, was concerned about the plight of area honeybees. He said there was a serious mite problem and estimated as many as 90 percent of the feral bee population — domesticated bees that run wild — had been wiped out over the past few years in our area. Honeybees are seeing a new crisis and home gardeners may be an important link in solving the national bee problem.

The new crisis stems from an ailment called Colony Collapse Disorder, according to The Bee Crisis, an article written by Sari Harrar in the winter 2008 issue of Organic Gardening magazine. CCD began making big headlines when scientists realized it had wiped out over 30 percent of the nation’s 2.4 million honeybee colonies during the fall and winter of 2006-07. Scientists have been working since to determine the cause and a process in order to stop its progress. CCD has heavily afflicted mobile honeybee hives that are hauled cross-country to pollinate large commercial field crops, as well as bees that frequent home gardens. Suspected causes involve virus, parasite and fungal diseases and the use of some agricultural insecticides.

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Honeybees get credit for most of the pollinating in the United States, but they are not native to the Americas. They were brought here in the 1600s by English and Dutch settlers. Spanish priests took them into Mexico and the southwestern states. With the decline of so many honeybee colonies, native American bees appear to be picking up the pollination slack, says researcher James H. Cane, an entomologist with the USDA’s Bee Biology and Systematics Lab in Logan, Utah. There are over 4,000 species of native American bees — from tiny sweat bees to bumblebees. The list even includes a squash bee, which does a better job than honeybees in pollinating all types of winter and summer squash, says Cane.

A 2006 National Academy of Sciences report found that America’s wild pollinators are showing decline also due to exposure to toxic insecticides, diseases, loss of food and nesting sites. Here is where home gardeners come into the picture. Protecting our native bees is an insurance policy for our food supply, says Cane, and gardeners can help. He recommends planting a variety of blossom types and colors.

The object is to have blossoms high in nectar or pollen. Avoid blossoms with a lot of ruffles or double petals. They can be difficult for bees to penetrate when searching for nectar. Three seasons of continuous bloom is desired, or native bees can starve.

Different bees have different life cycles. Some need food in early spring, others in fall. They are not attracted to common spring bulbs such as tulips and daffodils, or to many of the newer hybrid varieties of roses, annuals and perennials. Plant flower types in clumps. Finicky bees might ignore or simply not see small, single plantings. Flowering trees, shrubs, herbs, wildflowers, ground covers and old-fashioned flowers like grandma used to grow, such as summer phlox, verbena, cosmos, sunflowers, old roses and sages, are some of the best choices to attract and nurture native bees.

Most native bees live alone and in the ground, rather than in hives, as honeybees do. Each female digs her own nesting tunnel in which she raises a few offspring. They need bare ground that is well drained and sunny, not mulched. Cane suggests leaving a few bare spots around your yard for this purpose. You can even create nesting areas with wood blocks or tubes for the native bees to use.

Another criteria must be protection from chemical attacks, even organic ones. Native bees, as well as all beneficial insects, do not tolerate exposure to insecticides and other garden chemicals very well. So whether you plan to plant fruits and vegetables or just flowers this growing season, remember the bees. They are a fragile and crucial link in our food chain and we need to protect and nurture them whenever possible.

Miriam Jabour, a Master Gardener and master flower show judge, has been active with the Vicksburg Council of Garden Clubs for more than 20 years. Write to her at 1114 Windy Lake Drive, Vicksburg, MS 39183.