>> Monday, January 31, 2011

With more than 4,000 bee species native to North America, plus imported species such as the honey bee, these colorful insects are one of the easiest types of wildlife to attract to your garden. You might have more bees in your garden than you think—there are more black, blue, and metallic green species than the easily recognizable black-and-yellow ones. Most rarely sting, and all are extremely important pollinators of wild and agricultural plants. In fact, one third of the food we eat is the result of animal pollinators, the most important of which is the bee.

Bees are threatened by overuse of pesticides and habitat destruction, but you can help by planting a bee garden. Since bees feed on nectar and pollen from flowering plants, anyone with a small garden patch is already providing a bee habitat. Here’s how to make your garden even more attractive to bees:

Include a diversity of blooms from early spring through late fall to provide for different species that are active at different times of the year. The same plants will also give them shelter from predators and heavy rains. The best plants are the species native to your area. They are adapted to your local soils, climate, and precipitation, and they are the species with which native bees evolved. Some plants are even wholly dependent on certain bees to pollinate them.

Provide bees with nesting areas. Most species are solitary and do not form hives. Many lay their eggs in tunnels in sandy, dry soil, so leave a bare patch in your garden to provide nesting areas. Others, notably carpenter bees, nest in tunnels in decaying wood. Keep a dead tree snag or log in your yard for these bees.

Lure orchard mason bees to your garden by putting out bundles of dried, hollowed-out stems of bamboo or native shrubs such as elderberry. A female bee will deposit a small amount of pollen and nectar in the stem, lay an egg, and seal off the chamber with mud. She’ll repeat this process until the stem is filled. The larvae hatch and feed on the pollen-nectar deposit, pupate, and emerge as adults the following spring. Or drill 3- to 5-inch-deep holes in blocks of untreated wood with a 5/16-inch drill bit and place the block in a sheltered spot in the garden.

Bumble bees form hives and often use abandoned mouse burrows. You can build hive boxes filled with dried grasses to simulate what a bumble bee queen would find inside a mouse burrow. Plans for bee nests are available on the Internet.

Give bees a water source. Add rocks to a birdbath to provide a safe landing place for bees to get a drink. A dripper will not only keep the water clean, but will also create a muddy patch beneath the bath that certain bees will use for nesting material.

Practice organic gardening. Organic gardening will make your bee garden complete. Insecticides kill beneficial insects, including bees, along with the pests. Bee gardens attract birds and butterflies as well, providing these crucially important pollinators and other wildlife with the habitat they need to survive.

The Truth about Bee Stings
Many people are afraid of getting stung by bees, but the reality is that bees rarely sting. Here are the facts:

Only female bees have the ability to sting.
  • Stinging is often a reaction to threats to the hive. As a result, aggression is higher in hive-forming bees. Fortunately, the vast majority of bees are not hive-formers and only sting if severely harassed.
  • Honey bee stingers are barbed. When a bee stings someone, she tears a piece of abdomen, causing her death. Some wasp species can sting repeatedly.
  • If you are allergic to bee stings but love to garden, see your doctor and keep appropriate medications handy. Make sure your family and  neighbors know of your allergy and what to do in case of a sting.

Honey Bees at Home
Think of it as room and board for dedicated garden workers who will boost your harvest and provide you with half your body weight in honey. If you turn a corner of your yard into an apiary—a home for honey bees—you’ll get a lot of help with pollinating (which will boost your plants’ production of fruits and vegetables) and more honey than you can eat. Raising bees in your own backyard might sound crazy, but the risks are minimal and the rewards are sweet.

The Buzz on Bees
There are more than 4,000 bee species native to North America, but the imported European honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the species to which the term “beekeeping” typically refers. Honey bees have a set division of labor within their colonies, which can include as many as 80,000 bees. The queen is the core of the hive and the only female that mates and lays fertile eggs. Drones are male bees; their sole purpose is to mate with the queen. The rest of the bees are female workers who collect pollen and nectar, make honey, build honeycombs, manage hive temperature, defend the hive, and feed and care for the queen and larvae.

Bees produce honey using enzymes and evaporation. They bring nectar back to the hive and pass it along from mouth to mouth, which adds the enzymes. They then deposit it in chambers of the honeycomb, where workers buzz their wings to evaporate the water content, leaving behind concentrated sugars and other nutrients.

When the chamber is full, the bees seal it with a wax cap and store the honey for future consumption. Honey bees make more honey than they consume, which means some can be extracted for human use. You can harvest approximately 80 pounds from each hive each year.

Setting up a hive in your yard isn’t difficult. Here’s how to start: 
Check with authorities. Talk to your local government and find out if there are any restrictions on beekeeping.

Do your research. There are excellent books and Web sites that describe how to set up an apiary. Also, a quick search of the Internet or the phone book should reveal a beekeeping group in your area. Local wisdom is invaluable in learning about the best regional materials and practices.

Find the equipment. Hive boxes, harvesting equipment, and live bees are all available online or through mailorder catalogs. If you’re more adventurous, you can try collecting a swarm of wild bees. Contact your animal control agency to find out how to get involved in swarm removal.

Consider allergies. If anyone in your family is allergic to bee venom, beekeeping might not be the hobby for you. With a little knowledge and communication, however, you can avoid problems. If you don’t harass them, bees won’t sting, because it literally kills them to do it. Wear protective clothing when working in a hive, and resist the urge to swat at a bee. If your neighbors are uneasy about the presence of bees, offer to share your honey. An ounce of honey is worth a pound of cure!

Colony collapse disorder 
In recent years, wild honey bees have fallen victim to various microbes, diseases, and pests. Wax moths, for example, lay their eggs inside the hive, where the resulting larvae consume the wax and stored honey.

Most of these issues can be controlled in an apiary, but 2007 saw massive, unexplained hive die-offs. The cause of this so-called Colony Collapse Disorder remains a mystery, although some have hypothesized that the collective impact of introduced pests, pesticides, lack of wild habitat, and constant moving of commercial hives results in a mass weakening of bee immune systems. 

Colony Collapse Disorder could have a significant economic impact, as honey bees are important pollinators of agricultural crops.


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