"Vanishing Bees" a problem for farmers and gardeners

“Pesky bees!”

If you’ve ever said that as you swat away some critter flying around your face, the chances are that it isn’t really a bee at all. In fact, it’s more likely to be a yellow jacket, a hornet or a wasp. Domestic honey bees are relatively non-aggressive and, most important, are vital to the successful pollination of the plants in our gardens and a great deal more.

But it seems the humble bee could be in danger, according to an article in the Summer 2006 edition of OnEarth, the environmental magazine published quarterly by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The article, by author Sharon Levy, suggests that domesticated honeybees and their native counterparts, on which the nation depends to pollinate billions of dollars worth of fruits, vegetable and other crops, are disappearing thanks to pesticide use on crops and gardens and the destruction of their habitats.

Experts interviewed for the OnEarth article (“The Vanishing Bee”) blame the widespread use of pesticides by farmers who unintentionally poison domesticated honeybee colonies. Non-native species of parasitic mites are also deadly to honeybees.

For these reasons, claims the author, native wild bees will become even more important as pollinators, but they too are threatened because their habitats—natural woodlands, shrubs and flowers—have been decimated by relentless sprawl and development and by modern agriculture’s poor land-management practices.

One-third of the food Americans eat comes from crops that are pollinated by bees or other creatures, including butterflies, birds and bats, according to the article.

Without bees, many of the foods we enjoy – tomatoes, squash, peppers, apples and pears, for example – could disappear from our tables. Domesticated honeybees, in particular, are in steep decline. In the 1940s, American beekeepers had about 5 million colonies. Today, their colonies number about 2.3 million – and falling – while the demand for their services is increasing.

If you’d like to know more about this subject, go to http://www.hrdc.org/OnEarth and find “The Vanishing Bee” header. You can also click on a direct link when you go to my Web site www.landsteward.org and find this column under The Plant Man heading.

Doug Barasch, editor in chief of OnEarth describes bees as “the canaries in the coal mines,” because their potential demise is a warning to farmers and gardeners. But all is not lost (at least not yet) and the article recommends a number of solutions. These include limiting the use of chemical pesticides and setting aside space for plants that nurture bees.

Regular readers of this column know that, wherever possible, I recommend the use of organic solutions to garden and landscape problems. The declining bee population is just one more indication that ‘going organic’ isn’t just something of interest to aging hippies and “tree huggers”!

By the way, if you’re concerned about the potential incursion of so-called “Africanized” aggressive bees, most experts believe that the continued maintenance of a thriving domestic honeybee population is our best defense.

But what about the real pests?

If you are having a problem with hornets and yellow jackets, you’d probably like some advice on what you should do about them. One highly practical article, written by the experts at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension can be found athttp://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/ent/notes/Urban/horn-yj.htm and because it’s such a long address, you might prefer to click on a direct link from this column at my Web site.

Among the defensive suggestions: coat the landing areas of hummingbird feeders with petroleum jelly vapor chest rub to keep the yellow jackets away. Also, make sure trash cans are kept covered at all times.

The article describes how – as a last resort – you can destroy a colony, but suggests you might be better just to let the critters die out naturally in the late fall, unless the nest is dangerously close to your home or garden.

Your comments, suggestions and questions are always welcome, and I’m happy to offer personal suggestions for any landscape or garden problems you’re having... hopefully NOT bee stings!