May 13, 2004
All about bees
by AMY STEWART
RECENTLY, A FEW PEOPLE HAVE CONTACTED me about bees in the garden. What's the big deal about attracting bees, or about pollinators in general? What if they sting you? Are bees absolutely necessary?
So first of all, what do bees do? As a bee moves from plant to plant, it becomes covered with loose grains of pollen, which is basically plant sperm. Some pollen brushes off on the flower's stigma, which leads to its ovary. Pollen has been called "an excellent bribe" to bees; it contains enough protein, vitamins and minerals to make it a valuable food source, which is why bees gather it up so greedily. The pollen that brushes off the bee as it moves from plant to plant will make its way to the plant's ovaries, which are usually inconspicuous green pods at the base of the flower, so that reproduction can take place. Regular pollination means more flowers, more fruit and a more abundant plant population. That's no small matter when you consider that one-third of our diet comes from insect-pollinated plants. Here in California, it takes a million honeybee hives just to work the almond groves.
Now, a few words about what a honeybee is not. It is not a yellow jacket -- that pesky creature is a yellow and black striped wasp. If you get close enough, you can tell them apart because a yellow jacket has a narrow "waist" and an elongated body; it is also not fuzzy like a honeybee.
A honeybee is also not a hover fly, a non-stinging insect whose appearance mimics that of the honeybee. Hover flies aren't fuzzy, they only have one pair of wings as compared to the honeybee's two pair, and they are named for their tendency to hover directly above a flower. But don't be disappointed if the yellow and black striped creature you see in your garden is a hover fly -- they are excellent pollinators and their larvae love nothing better than a breakfast of aphids.
And don't forget about all the native bees -- around 3,500 species, to be exact -- that also should not be confused with honeybees. Many of the fat, lazily buzzing bees known as bumblebees are native to the United States and were here long before honeybees arrived.
In this country, as in most of the world, the creature we call the honeybee is Apis mellifera, the Western or European honey bee. It is not native, but it has colonized this country alongside European settlers. There are many races and hybrids of this species; one of the most popular is known as the Italian bee. It arrived here in the mid-19th century; if you were to order bees to start your own hive, you would most likely get Italian bees.
Now, what about bee stings? First of all, remember that bees are not interested in wasting a perfectly good stinger on you. When you're around bees, move slowly, avoid wearing perfumes or shiny jewelry, and don't swat at them. I find that bees are attracted to blond hair, so I wear a hat in the garden. (A hummingbird once got a little too friendly with my red T-shirt; now I wear drab colors outside, too.) If I'm working in the garden when bees are active, I try to pick a spot away from them and let them buzz around in peace. If you follow these simple guidelines, you may never get stung in the garden.
And remember that unless you are allergic to bee venom, a sting is really not a big deal. Carefully scrape out the stinger, wash with soap and water, and apply ice and a paste of baking soda and water. In fact, the sympathy you receive may far exceed the severity of your wound. To make the most of it, call about eight friends and tell them the story, ask someone in your family to go fetch you a pint of ice cream or a cold beer, and then settle down on the couch for the afternoon to nurse your wound. While you're recovering, check out Sue Hubbell's account of her life as a beekeeper, A Book of Bees, in which she wrote:
"It's silly to talk to bees -- for one thing, they can't hear -- but I often do it anyway. It is said that when a beekeeper dies someone must go and tell his bees about his death. ... It all sounds very superstitious, but I like the courtesy towards bees implied by the custom; I hope someone remembers to tell my bees when I die."
You may never look at a honeybee the same way again.
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Stop by Dow's Prairie School this weekend for their third annual spring plant sale on Saturday, May 15, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. They've got annual and perennial flowers, shrubs, trees, bulbs and vegetable starts. Many of the plants were grown by parents and students, and some were donated by local businesses. Last year, proceeds were used to buy books for the school library, help fund the art program, pay for supplies for the school garden and start a fund for curriculum materials for the Dow's Prairie Educational Wetland Project.
On Sunday, head to Weott for the Southern Humboldt Garden Club's 53rd Annual Flower Show at the Agnes Johnson Elementary School. There will be plants and flowers for sale, a tour of the school garden, a rummage sale and much more. The show runs from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., the theme is "Melody of Flowers" and admission is free. Check nurseries for program booklets, or call 946-2465 or 725-3198 for more information.
garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.
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