The media’s continuing coverage of bees and their challenges, especially pesticides, tends to incite, frighten and confuse most of us. Even among scientists the issues are complex and controversial, but everyone agrees that bees desperately need more and better food. The best way for all of us to help is to grow more flowering plants. Dr. Marla Spivak’s plea is more specific and compelling: “Plant flowers, mostly native and keep them free of pesticides.” For a clear, concise explanation about what is going on with bees, you can’t beat her TED talk, http://www.ted.com/talks/marla_spivak_why_bees_are_disappearing?language=en
The oft-quoted ‘Bees are responsible for every third bite of our food’ is really an underestimation. The majority of our most nutritious and delicious foods rely on insect, largely bee, pollination. This includes foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, berries, oils, and indirectly some of our dairy and meat products, since alfalfa used for hay and silage requires bee pollination. Today’s industrial agricultural system comprises huge fields of single crops (monoculture) and relies heavily on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Because these fields do not sustain populations of native pollinators, since flowers are only in bloom for a brief time, managed honey bee hives are brought in. In February, when the 800,000 acres of almond trees are in bloom in California, it can be a pollinator paradise. After the blooms are gone in a few weeks, the almond orchards are a toxic food desert and will be so for most of the year. The bloom period is preceded and followed by a regimen of pesticide applications, most harmful to bees. A majority of this country’s 2.5 million honey bee hives, up to 1,600,000 hives, are transported to the orchards on pallets. Most of those bee hives are then trucked off to other crops across the country.
It’s a paradox. Bees working hard to help produce our food are in need of more and better food of their own. Hmmm.
Besides the mandate to plant flowers, mostly natives, free of pesticides, gardeners might consider using edible plants throughout the landscape for both their inherent beauty and their teaching value. Watch the bumble bees buzz-pollinate your tomato and pepper plants grown in attractive containers with artistic stakes. Catch the huge carpenter bees cheating at blueberry pollination. Instead of diving straight into the flowers, they drill holes through the petals, bypassing the pollen and going straight to the nectar.
Blueberry bushes are beautiful most of the year, having spring flowers followed by delicious fruit and then gorgeous fall foliage colors of oranges and reds that often last until winter. Let a squash or pumpkin vine wander through a flower bed, or stake a cucumber vine on a privacy fence. Five pollinator visits per flower to make a single fruit means lots of buzzing activity and gives kids of all ages a chance to learn about male and female flowers. Then observe the tiny ovary grow to full fruit size. Watch the ‘bee party’ in a patch of sunflowers at the back of your cutting garden or along a sunny fence line, and remember; no bees, no sunflower seeds or sunflower oil. While not a pollinator favorite, a border of Rainbow Chard with its crinkly large leaves of glossy red, pink, orange, yellow and green are stunning, and if you don’t mind the resulting holes, you might love seeing the goldfinches dining on them. The options are nearly endless for edible landscapes that are beautiful, educational and also provide food for you, the precious pollinators and the other wildlife in your neighborhood.
Written by Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Diane Almond.