I hope the idea of National Pollinator Week has inspired you to consider ways to help the pollinators in your garden. If you’re looking for even more inspiration, there’s a book I’d like to recommend to you. “Letters from the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind” is a book from Dr. Stephen Buchmann, an important member of the Pollinator Partnership. The book (Bantam, 2005) will give you new insight into the hive and the vital role bees play in our history, culture and kitchens.
I had the chance to interview Dr. Buchman in 2005 when his book was first released. This interview originally was published in The Denver Post newspaper at that time.
The most overworked and under-appreciated garden helper is the bee.
Like their human commuter counterparts, bees leave their nests early each morning to go to work. Their day is spent flying from flower to flower searching for nectar and pollen. At dusk they return home to rest before the start of another busy workday.
Bees go about their business with little notice or fanfare. But what would we do without our fuzzy, flying friends?
Imagine a summer without tomatoes.
“Without bees we would have an entirely different diet, a very boring and bland one,” says Dr. Stephen Buchmann, president and founder of The Bee Works, an environmental consulting firm in Tucson. “Insects pollinate about 80 percent of the world’s flowering plant species and bees most of that amount.”
It’s estimated that one-third of our food supply is derived from insect-pollinated plants. Hundreds of fruits and vegetables would disappear if anything were to happen to the honey bee.
“We would survive on rice and bread and cornmeal, but we wouldn’t have the healthy, fun, and delicious fruits and vegetables that we enjoy,” Buchmann explains. “It’s been stated that if there were no bees and other pollinators, it’s doubtful that the human population could survive for more than a few months.”
An amateur beekeeper and associate professor of entomology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Buchmann is recognized as one of the leading authorities on bees and pollination. He has researched bees, crop plants, and native flowering plants in 15 countries on three continents. He’s known for his pioneering research on “buzz pollination.”
Buchmann was drawn to bees at an early age. “I’m one of those kids who never grew out of the bug-and-dinosaur phase,” he says. “I grew up in southern California catching bugs and bees.” He’d catch caterpillars and raise them to butterflies in Mason jars he kept in his bedroom.
Those early experiences led to a lifelong interest in entomology and he has surrounded himself with bees—literally. In his new book, “Letters from the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind,” he writes about his exhilarating experiences running inside swarms of bees.
It’s easy to agree with Buchmann that bees are watchable wildlife. However, even the most experienced gardener can only identify a handful of bees.
“People typically recognize the honey bee, the black and yellow striped bumblebee, and maybe the sweat bee or carpenter bee. But there are tens of thousands of species of bees around the world and 4,000 known species in the U.S.,” Buchmann says. “There’s an incredible diversity in the shapes, sizes, and colors of bees.”
Gardeners may be surprised to learn the majority of bees are solitary, ground nesting bees that don’t make surplus honey. “The mother bee does it all on her own. She lays eggs in a bare spot in the soil or a vertical bank like an adobe wall.”
But our bee populations are in serious trouble.
Loss and fragmentation of habitat, and use of insecticides and herbicides are key reasons why bees are being threatened. In addition, honey bees are falling victim to two kinds of parasitic mites.
For the next 18 months, Buchmann will serve on a special committee for the Boards on Life Sciences at the National Academy of Sciences, studying the status of pollinators in North America.
“We’ll be determining if there are widespread pollinator declines, the causes, the consequences, and what to do about it.
“We’ve lost huge numbers of honey bees,” Buchmann says. “There were 5 to 6 million managed hives in the 1950s and now there are only two million.” In some parts of the country there are no wild or feral honey bees because of the mites.”
Each year colonies of honey bees are transported across the country, and from field to field, to provide pollination services to the agricultural industry. The almond crop in California depends on these bee visits to keep the almond industry growing.
The honey bee is the best of the pollinators and is the easiest to move from orchard to orchard. In the garden, there are dozens of other kinds of bees traveling from blossom to blossom. The variety of bees assures pollination of a wide-range of plants.
“Gardeners don’t realize that honey bees aren’t effective pollinators for all flowers in all crops,” Buchmann says. “Buzz pollination has to occur on plants like tomato, eggplant, blueberries and cranberries.” Buzz pollination happens when a bumblebee hangs on a flower and gives it a big bee hug, forcing out the pollen grains.
There are simple steps gardeners can take to increase the bee population in their gardens. “Gardeners need to have a certain tolerance for dead branches or dead trees,” Buchmann advises. Giant carpenter bees, leaf-cutter bees, and mason bees nest in the beetle burrows of dead limbs.
Eliminating chemicals from the garden also helps. If gardeners must use insecticides, they should follow label guidelines, spray at night when pollinators aren’t active, or use chemicals less toxic to bees.
Gardeners could also learn to appreciate those circular snippets cut out of rose leaves. Native leaf-cutter bees need those round leaf wrappers to line their cells. Buchmann likens the leaf wrappers to baby blankets for young bees. That just might help take the sting out of having imperfect rose bushes.