Edible has covered Southold-based beekeeper Laura Klahre before for her colorful crayons made of beeswax and her love of teaching children about bees, but as a recent article in the New York Times attests the state of our bee population is precarious. Honeybees are starting to recover from colony collapse disorder, but it is still necessary to move hives on flatbed trucks from farm to farm to pollinate crops. Stressful for the bees and expensive for the farmers. The writer of the op-ed, beekeeper and scientist Noah Wilson-Rich, states that we should pay attention to other species of bees that also pollinate. Klahre points her finger directly at wild bees and tells us what we can do to foster their health.
While enjoying a soft serve vanilla ice cream cone with mounds of rainbow sprinkles the other day, I thought of my girls and smiled about those little worker bees returning from a foraging trip with pollen — beautiful reds, yellows and oranges — overflowing their pollen baskets and dusted all over their bodies as they enter the hive.
When bees collect nectar and pollen from flowers, the flowers get an even greater gift, pollination, which results in big juicy berries, large vitamin-packed vegetables, seeds for hungry birds and seeds for new generations of plants.
Before World War II in the United States, most farmers relied on wild bees for pollination. They nurtured them by growing a variety of crops to ensure blooming flowers throughout the growing season and by interspersing their active growing fields with woodlots, fallow fields and hedgerows, where wild bees live.
After World War II honeybees were increasingly used to pollinate farms and large backyard gardens; honeybees are originally from Europe. Farmers today rely almost exclusively on honeybees for pollinating their crops. Honeybee hives live for multiple years and each colony’s population can grow to about 80,000 during the season. Wild beehives live only one year and a majority of wild bees are solitary nesters.
As a beekeeper, I can attest honeybees are having a hard time surviving these days. Since fall 2006, beekeepers have watched apparently healthy colonies die off due to an epidemic now called colony collapse disorder. Beekeepers across the nation have gone out of business and honey yields have plummeted. A pollination crisis will bloom.
Since my husband and I opened our store selling his wine, Coffee Pot Cellars, and my bee products, Blossom Meadow, in Cutchogue in 2013 several customers have asked about their backyard gardens and reduced crop yields. Environmental factors such as drought, nutrient deficiencies and competition can affect productivity; however, the crops may have been poorly pollinated due to a localized shortage of pollinators.
I believe the future of pollination for farms and backyard gardens lies with wild bees. There are 430 different bee species in New York State, including sweat bees, orchard mason bees, squash bees and bumblebees. Even in the suburbs, a wide variety of bees fly around. A survey of residential gardens in Westchester County found 110 bee species. Bee for bee, wild bees are better pollinators of food crops than honeybees, thus wild bees do not need to be as abundant as honeybees to provide the same level of pollination. Extensive research demonstrates that crops with sufficient nearby natural wild bee habitat can achieve all pollination from wild bees alone.
With some land management, we can help wild bee populations thrive so they can pollinate, and sustain, our crops. Here is what you can do on your own property.
- Don’t spray for ticks: More than 65 percent of wild bees, even in suburbs, are ground nesters. The active ingredient of tick spray, permethrin, is, according to the USEPA, “highly toxic to bees exposed to direct treatment.” By prophylactically spraying for ticks, you are directly spraying into wild bee nests and any bees on your flowers and lawn. Permethrin is a neurotoxin; it kills bumblebees, mining bees, sweat bees and cellophane bees.
- Don’t control grubs in your lawn with pesticides: Japanese beetle grubs eat grass roots, and in large numbers can kill a lawn. Grub killers are applied to the grass and the lawn is then watered. The roots are then poisoned and the grubs die. Systemic pesticides do not just stay in the roots; they translocate to flowers. Foraging bees visit these flowers and collect contaminated nectar and pollen. The critical issue is the active ingredients in grub control products, including imidacloprid and thiamethoxam. Both are highly toxic to bees. In fact, imidacloprid has been found to give bees early dementia and substantially reduce their ability to learn. To control grubs naturally, apply beneficial nematodes.
- Ensure nesting sites: Mulch and landscape fabric suppress weeds and conserve water, but they discourage ground-nesting bees including squash bees. Species like bumblebees nest in pre-existing cavities, such as an abandoned mouse nest or bird nest. Orchard mason bees (a great pollinator of raspberries and apple trees) nest in smaller pre-existing holes including old beetle burrows in dead trees. Leave some of your yard unmulched and without weed fabric and allow a few dead trees to remain to provide essential habitat for wild bees.
- Ensure food sources: To increase forage for pollinators, plant hedgerows and yards with native plants, shrubs and trees; these flowers are four times more attractive to wild bees than exotic flowers. It is best to choose several colors of flowers — bees are particularly attracted to blue, purple, violet, white, and yellow. Ensure blooming plants throughout the growing season and plant flowers in clumps four feet or more in diameter. Try to plant heirloom varieties of perennials and herbs. Heirlooms are typically good sources of nectar and pollen, attributes that may have been lost when plants are further bred for showy flowers or drought tolerance. Allow farm and garden crops, such as lettuces, to bolt and develop flower stalks. Better yet, with over 31,000 square miles of lawns maintained as mowed grass in the United States (a combined land area of Mass., Rhode Island, Vermont and New Jersey), convert your lawn from a food desert to a bee smorgasbord by allowing clover, dandelion and violet to grow and flower.
Why do I keep honeybees if I think the future of pollination depends on cultivating wild bees? Well, I love honey! Give all bees a boost with the hands-off method. Essentially doing nothing — not applying pesticides, not overly manicuring your lawn, and not mulching — is doing something. Nurturing honeybees and wild bees is directly connected with bountiful gardens, profitable farms, and a healthy future for all of us.
Laura Klahre is owner of Blossom Meadow. She is a full-time beekeeper and life-long conservationist. Please visit her store on the North Fork in Cutchogue (31855 Main Road, just east of King Kullen), shared with Coffee Pot Cellars.