Home gardeners can help save the bees — and our food supply

Last modified: Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Albert Einstein, a man lauded as an icon for his superior intelligence, once said, “If the bee disappears from the surface of the Earth, man would have no more than four years to live.”

Many people who are interested in gardening and sustainability have become familiar with the term “colony collapse disorder.” While no single cause has been identified, local bee experts attribute the loss of bees in recent years to a mix of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and more typical predation by mites and diseases that destroy hives.

Tom Sullivan trained at the Conway School of Landscape and works to create “landscapes that are more regenerative.” He also runs a business called Pollinators Welcome, with a mission to educate about pollinators (which include butterflies and other insects) and their direct effect on our food supply.

Sullivan said that besides honeybees, which are not native to the United States, there are over 350 species of bee in Massachusetts.

”They range from a quarter-inch up to about an inch, such as the bumblebee,” he said.

Honeybees and bumblebees are the only bees that live in a hive, he said. The rest live individually, mating once a year and laying approximately 30 eggs. These tiny bees only live approximately six weeks. “You’d be surprised at how much pollination those little bees are responsible for,” said Sullivan.

Bee die-off’s effects

“If you have 3,500 species of plants that need pollination, nature has a choice — wind or pollinators, and bees are champion pollinators,” said Dan Conlon, owner of Warm Colors Apiary in South Deerfield.

Conlon has also been involved at the top levels of state organizations geared to bee education and preservation, as well as certifying master bee keepers.

“Besides affecting our food supply, plants purify our air, and water plants purify our water,” said Conlon. Simply put, bees are crucial to all plant life on Earth, which in turn affects every other living thing.

“We need bees to create the highest levels of crop production,” Conlon said.

Currently, University of Massachusetts entomology professor Anne Averill is working to avert a crisis affecting the cranberry crop in the Taunton area. Cranberry is the largest crop grown in southeast Massachusetts, and Massachusetts is the second largest producer worldwide of cranberries. A sucking insect known as a “scale” attacked new crops recently, and producers applied a heavy mix of pesticides while plants were blooming, which has had the ripple effect of killing pollinators needed to have a successful crop, Averill said. “Loss of habitat, isolation of population, genetic stressors, parasites and insecticides have been the greatest contributors to bee loss,” she said.

Sullivan said there has been a recent bee die-off relating to pesticide compounds that have affected almond crops.

“Over 800,000 hives were affected. One event affects the other. The first ‘pollinating event’ was the almond trees in California, which then affects the apples in Washington state and, eventually, the blueberries in Maine,” he said.

What home gardeners can do

All the experts agreed that the first and foremost measure homeowners can take is to no longer use pesticide compounds that contain neonicotinoids. The compound was banned in Europe last September, primarily due to its lethal effect on pollinators.

Tina Smith of the UMass Extension Greenhouse Crops and Floriculture Program recommends using the least damaging pesticides/herbicides, and as little of them as possible.

“Read before you buy. There is always a lot of information on the labels regarding environmental hazards. The label will even often tell you how toxic the product is to bees,” she said.

If there’s a need to spray, Smith said, try to avoid spraying blooms and use as little as possible to avoid “drift” onto other plants. “Also, spray in the early or later part of the day when the bees are not actively foraging,” she said.

Bees are sensitive to temperature, Sullivan said, which make the early or later part of the day the better times to spray.

“Bees don’t tend to forage when the temperatures get to 55 degrees or below,” Smith said.

Conlon said one of the biggest contributions homeowners can make to bee preservation is to dramatically reduce the use of chemicals on lawns.

“Until recently, even beekeepers thought some of the neonicotinoids were safe. But mixed with other compounds and sprayed, it becomes more lethal than just pesticides,” Conlon said.

For those who feel the need to spray their lawns, Averill strongly suggests mowing first so that the clovers, dandelions and other small flowering plants can be cut off to prevent bees from feeding.

The experts also concurred in wishing that people would “get over” their dislike of dandelions, because they provide an early and rich pollen supply for the bees.

If spraying for hornets or wasps, they said, again be careful not to overspray or oversaturate an area, because the pesticides will kill bees as well.

“Try to use a very narrow, focused spray,” Smith said.

Best flowering plants

According to the experts, while every plant flowers, some provide higher nutritional quality or density of pollen and nectar.

“Not all pollen is equal or digestible (for bees),” Sullivan said. Diversity in the landscape is a key, as is providing plants that bloom successively to provide the longest period for bees to forage over the growing season.

“When you’re going to spend money on flowers, go to the nursery and look at the plants that already have bees on them,” said Averill, describing the simplest method of plant selection.

Conlon said the best publication he had ever come across describing levels of pollen and nectar, blooming periods, and sugar concentrations was generated in 1956 by F.R. Shaw, who worked in the department of entomology at UMass. The listing was in observance of plants’ blooming times in the central Connecticut River Valley in Massachusetts. The publication lists a wide range of wild and cultivated plants, bushes, and trees. Conlon will email anyone interested in a copy of the document by writing him via his website, warmcolorsapiary.com.

Asters, crocus, sunflowers, clover, alliums, cone flowers, flowering bushes, even skunk cabbage are part of a wide array of plants you can choose to have in your gardens or landscape. Sullivan said that the depth of the flower is critical to the bee that is feeding, because feeding depends on the length of the bee’s tongue.

“For instance, with a plant like snapdragons, only bumblebees are big enough to open their trap door to get in to feed,” Sullivan said.

Conlon said nearly every type of herb, such as thyme, basil, etc. is an excellent source of pollen for bees, as are fruit trees and ornamentals.

Smith noted that plants that have been hybridized for large, showy flowers often contain far less pollen and nectar, bees’ primary food source.

Importance of habitat

“Creating a diversified landscape in your yard using annuals, perennials, and ground covers is important for bees. It’s also best to plant in groupings of good-sized clumps, such as with cone flowers,” Smith said.

“It’s also helpful to have cool spots and shrubs,” she added.

Conlon said, “Seventy percent of all bees are solitary and need to live in logs, the ground, etc. Bumblebees like to live in old mouse nests.”

He suggested letting a portion of your property grow wild, and leaving debris to create as much diversity as possible for the many varieties of bees. He also suggests looking for growers who provide plants that are native to the area. Conlon said even invasive plants such as purple loosestrife and knotweed, while problematic in some regards, are also great sources of pollen and nectar.

“You want to have undisturbed areas for nesting. There are 12 types of bumblebee in Massachusetts. All the rest (besides honeybees), about 70 percent of bees, are ground nesting,” said Sullivan who recommended leaving some bare patches of soil for ground nesting bees.

Lastly, if you are afraid of bees, it is best to educate yourself as much as possible.

“If you’re allergic, that’s one thing. Otherwise, Google bees, wasps, hornets, and flies so you really know what you are seeing,” Sullivan said.

Bees don’t tend to sting because they will die once they have stung. Wasps and hornets can sting repeatedly.

For more information on bee/pollinator education, classes and workshops, you can go to pollinatorswelcome.com.


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