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The Bees Knees...

Did your garden seem to be a little...skimpy...this year?

Did you notice less bees buzzing around your plants?

That could be because we are having a REAL problem with keeping honey bees healthy and alive. There are fewer beekeepers now than there have been in past years. Couple that with fewer food sources, and more pests that attack the honey bees, and what are you left with? A species that is slowly but surely dying out. Expert beekeepers estimate that in as few as 20 years, honeybees could be completely gone from our planet.

What does that mean for you? Most noticeable, you will not have food or oxygen. Less noticeable, you won't be getting stung as much.

In truth, honey bees are very gentle critters. We are taught to fear them because we could be allergic and an allergic reaction to a bee sting is usually instantaneous and lethal (if in fact, you ARE allergic). However, a bee does NOT wish to sting you, as it means certain death for them. One and done for these guys. Bees will use stinging as a last resort for protection. The author of this blog is DEATHLY allergic to honey bee stings, to the point, she must carry an Epi-Pen when working in the garden. However, over the years, I've learned to calm myself when I'm visiting my butterfly bush, salvias, lavender, bee balm, or other various attractive plants in my garden. Bees will land on my, or harmlessly check me out. If you don't swat at them, but gently brush them off, you have a very very slim chance of getting stung. Respect the bees, the bees will respect you.

Seasoned bee keepers are able to visit their hives with little to no protective gear. That's not to say they never get stung. @Katiesbaebees (pictured here) is seeing if her replacement Queen for the colony has been accepted by the rest of the hive. It's a delicate process that must be done with as little upset to the hive as possible so as not to disturb the workers or eggs. Credit: Katiesbaebees®

Bees, despite their bad rap, are needed. Without them, there's no pollination. Not just of that insanely expensive and decorative plant you spent several years keeping alive and cultivating, but also your tomatoes, corn, melons, squash, wheat, just about anything you can grow. They pollinate the grasses your beef and pork eat. They make sure your chickens have food. Absolutely EVERYTHING need bees to survive.

Honey bees are typically your heaviest pollinators producing an excess of honey for you to enjoy on your toast or oatmeal. Bumble bees, while excellent pollinators, do NOT produce an excess of honey, and therefore you will not see golden goodness dripping from their hives.

In recent years, with honey bees dying off due to pests such as Varroa Mites, pesticides, herbicides, and destruction of fields and wildlands they need to thrive, you have most likely seen an uptick in the wasp population. Wasps will sometimes kill honey bees and take off with the honey from the hive, as well as aggressively decimate the honeybees. Wasps are becoming the majority of pollinators, as they are a more aggressive winged-variety. Wasps will sting and bite just for the heck of it to be a nuisance. They make their paper dens and yes, will even invade a healthy honey bee hive, slaughter the honey bees, and basically take over the hive, invading it, and most times, successfully conquering the overthrowing of the Queen.

We lose about 30% of our bee population every year. While that doesn't seem drastic or maybe you think "well they definitely haven't seen my yard!" then perhaps you are wise and knowingly (or by pure happenstance) planted things that will attract pollinators. But the sad truth is, pesticides, fertilizers, parasites, deforestation, changes in land use, and habitat destruction all play a part in the bees dying. It's a double edged sword in many cases: we have a population boom, and need to build more houses. However, we cannot keep destroying the bees homes for our homes. Otherwise, we will eventually die out as well, as we will have NO FOOD left!

Bees of all types are called "keystone" species, which means humans and pretty much everything else, will cease to exist without them. Yes, we could absolutely "pollinate by hand" and do the whole artificial pollination in labs. However, that would make us reliant on humans to do that, and if THEY suddenly decide food is best grown in a test tube, rather than go to all that trouble (huh...that bees just naturally DO), we are all screwed, blued and tattooed my friends. There are some remote regions of China already experiencing this. In the Hindu-Kush Himalayan region that includes parts of China, Pakistan, India and Nepal. They foolishly planted ONLY apple and pear trees that would bring in the highest dollar amount when sold. And that was all they planted. Planting all of the same variety of fruit trees made them "self-sterile". Meaning they had nothing to cross-pollinate with, which lead to no fruit to be had on any of the trees. There's many factors that nature just know how to do when the time is right, and without getting graphic with a talk about "the birds and the bees" we'll just leave it at that.

However, in this particular region, growers decided to stave off possible pests and sprayed their trees with pesticides, herbicides, and did everything they thought to do to "keep their trees healthy and baring fruit". Too much of a good thing happened, and in 1999 the impact was noticeable to the point that they had to hand pollinate their trees. A laborious job, for sure, but totally unnecessary. Working harder, not smarter.

The Hindu Kush region eventually felt the squeeze and impact, and by 2011, only apple growers in the Maoxian region of China were still practicing hand pollination.

While you may be thinking "well if it comes to that, at least we have it to fall back on as a contingency plan", in the words of Bill Nye the Science Guy, "consider the following":

The example of hand pollination in China illustrates what a failure to understand what ecosystem services looks like. What are "ecosystem services"? It's the things the earth does basically for free. Kind of like your body pumping blood through your veins, and breath going into your lungs: it just DOES. The earth supplies oxygen from the trees, water is filtered by rain clouds, and plants are pollinated by bees. When parts of an ecosystem are removed, it stoops functioning the way it's meant to. Agriculture is an ecosystem, if not a very diverse one.

That's not to say NOTHING is hand pollinated today. Cherimoya and vanilla are examples of two crops that now rely solely on hand pollination. That's because their specially-adapted pollinators are missing and honey bees cannot pick up the slack.

Simply getting rid of all pesticides or eradicating mites will not solve the problem in a nutshell. Pesticides are only part of the problem. There are many spokes to this wheel of destruction of the pollinators and simply not doing one or two will not solve the issue. Preservation is the most important thing right now. Planting flowers and vegetables that attract bees. Keeping your garden free of harmful pesticides, and providing a fresh water source are all small steps you can take to help honey bees. A shallow dish of fresh water with some wood chips or stones for bees to rest on is a wonderful idea to keep them healthy. Bees cannot swim, nor can they get their wings wet. Placing stepping stones or wood chips in the water dish gives them a crash pad to rest while getting a drink. If you'd like to participate in a more impactful way, consider sponsorships to a local beekeeper. Some will have packages that give you honey from the hive you've sponsored, updates, and all kinds of goodies. (Katiesbaebees, pictured above, offers sponsorship of hives in Oklahoma. You can find her on Facebook! Reach out to your local beekeepers to find out if they offer sponsorships in your specific area.)

In the words of Albert Einstein, "If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than 4 years left to live"

Things you can do to help keep the bee population alive and thriving:

  1. Provide a stable food source for bees. Plant bee-specific bushes, plants flowers and other vegetation.

  2. Fresh water source.

  3. Glucose water during the chilly mornings and cool evenings of fall and spring will give them the boost they need. Be wary of using imported honey for this. (See #5)

  4. If you suspect a swarm, chances are the bees are tired and just resting. Leave the swarm alone and call a beekeeper to remove it safely, capturing the Queen to ensure a successful transplant.

  5. Avoid feeding bees non-native honey. Honey imported from other areas and countries can carry dangerous bacteria and other pests that may harm your local fuzzy friends. Always choose native (local) from your specific area.

  6. Instead of using harsh pesticides to get rid of aphids and other creepy crawlies in your vegetable garden, consider an application of lady bugs, or simply spray your garden with diluted dish soap.

  7. If you can stand allowing a small patch of your lawn to become overgrown and completely wild, this provides honey bees a miniature ecosystem of flowering weeds and grasses to collect pollen.

  8. Please, please please don't swat at them. I know it's tempting, especially when they get all curious and up in your business. They are naturally curious insects and will be attracted to different things, including perfumes, and dark clothing. They're just coming by to see if you have any of the good goods on you. Remain calm and just let them do their thing.

Shout out to Katiesbaebees for allowing me to use her images and for all information provided. All credit goes to her for her diligent and amazing knowledge of these beautiful fuzzy guys! All rights to images used belong to Katiesbaebees. I own no rights to them. Used with permission

To see how Katie introduces a new member to the hive, and the delicate process bee-hind it, check out:

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