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Posts Tagged ‘Bees’

Or we might have titled this post “Why Bees Are So Important.”

In January the press reported that scientists had noticed a significant decline in bumblebee populations in the U.S. — first it was the honeybees that were disappearing and now it’s bumblebees too. Scientists are not sure why just yet, but one thing they can agree on is that this is not good news because bumblebees pollinate about 15% of all crops in the field — blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, squash and watermelon; and in the hothouse — tomatoes, strawberries and peppers.

And it’s not just the many different variety of bees (honeybees, bumbles, carpenter bees, mason bees, metallic sweat bees, leaf-cutter bees, ground-nesting bees, and various localized native bees) that pollinate flowers. There are many other creatures that do this work like ants, beetles, moths, flies, birds, butterflies, wasps, bats, and even a few mammals that transport pollen as they make their rounds.

Which is kind of the long way round to the question of problems with fruit set in squash, melons and cucumbers. Several people have asked why the flowers on squash and cucumber plants have been falling off. There are several reasons.

The first thing you should know is you might not have a problem. Squash, melons and cucumbers belong to the cucurbit family and they all have a unique flowering habit. Each plant bears male and female blossoms. The female blossom has a miniature fruit (ovary) at the base of the flower. Male blossoms don’t have this swelling. The male flower’s only job is to provide pollen to fertilize the ovary in the female flower and they depend on bees to do this. If the pollen isn’t transported from male to female flower fruit set will never happen.

Early flowers tend to be mostly male and these will fall off with no sign of fruit set. Not to worry, this is normal. On certain hybrid varieties of summer squash the early flowers are mostly females that don’t get fertilized and they will drop as well.

When the plants start producing both male and female flowers at the same time things should start clicking — unless there are no bees around. Cucurbits have sticky pollen and need bees to transport it from male to female flower. If your garden doesn’t have enough bees to pollinate the female flowers you will not get fruit.

In the absence of bees the only option is to hand pollinate. Get a small artist brush and pick up the yellow pollen that you will find inside the male flowers. Take the pollen-coated brush and paint it onto the stigma in the female flower. It is important to do this to only flowers that have just opened as they are only receptive for a single day.

It would be so much easier to have bees do the work! Without them crops will fail, plants won’t thrive, and we will be hard pressed to find solutions to this growing problem.

How can you help? Rule number one is to NEVER use pesticides in your garden. No matter how careful you are you will almost always kill at least a few bees. Rule number two is to create a garden that will sustain bees and all the creatures that help us grow food and the other plants we love. You can find tips on creating bee-friendly gardens in this post and by clicking some of the links on our resources page.

One last note, though we always recommend lots of mulch for your garden beds be sure to leave a few small areas bare for ground-nesting bees. Mulching is thought to be one of main reasons that this type of bee population is diminishing.

Save the bees!

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We’ve written a lot about Colony Collapse Disorder and the nearly overwhelming problems that affect honey bees, but things are at least as dire for our native bees, most notably the lovely bumble bee.

Bumbles are the stuff of our childhood memories. Who, when remembering walks through wildflower fields, doesn’t see in their mind’s eye fuzzy, funny bumble bees drifting from flower to flower? These pollinators were plentiful years ago, but now, like many plants and animals, bumbles are suffering from loss of habitat, pesticide poisoning, changing climates, and diseases that were introduced along with non-native bees.

There are almost 50 bumble bee species native to North America and many of them are threatened not with just a serious decline in numbers, but with extinction. In a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a study done over the last three years shows a widespread pattern of decline in bumble bee populations. The western bumble bee, the rusty-patched bumble bee and yellow-banded bumble bee used to be very common, but their numbers have decreased by 96 percent and their range shrunk by as much as 87 percent. (This is video Native Bumblebees features an interview with Scott Black of the Xerces Society who’s been tracking the disappearance of the western bumble bees in Oregon.) Franklin’s bumble bee, found in a relatively small area covering southern Oregon and northern California, is now thought to be extinct.

Many other bumble bee species have also experienced serious declines in their numbers and ranges which is a big problem because bumbles are an important pollinator for high-value crops such as cranberries, blueberries and clover. They are also important elements in many ecosystems, pollinating wildflowers and plants that produce seeds and fruits that feed everything from songbirds to bears.

Bumble bees are unique in that they are able to fly in colder weather than other bee species and this makes them key pollinators for native plants in the tundra, prairie and  higher elevation climates. In fact bumble bees are the most effective pollinators for certain plants and seem to have evolved along with particular species of plants — the length of their tongues is exactly what is required to pollinate them. So if that particular pollinator is in decline you can reasonably expect that the plant that depends on it will decline as well. And that’s exactly what appears to have happened in parts of Britain and the Netherlands where native insect-pollinated plants have declined along with bee populations.

There are many ways you can help bumbles survive and perhaps thrive. The most important is DON’T USE PESTICIDES in your gardens. The stuff on the shelf at your local big box stores and nurseries is dangerous to man and beast. Really, this stuff will poison you, your kids, the dog, the cat, the chickens, and any other creatures that happen to be in the vicinity. Make a resolution to forego poisons in your garden this year. (We’ll write a post or two about organic alternatives and how to safely use them in your garden soon.)

Other ways to help the bumble bees:

  • Plant natives in your garden and plan for a succession of pollen and nectar-bearing blooms throughout the season.
  • Bumbles like asters, bee balm, blueberries, borage, clovers, lupines, mints, and rhododendrons to name a few.
  • Bumbles will nest lots of different places like logs, trees, old mouse burrows and grass tussocks. Leave a bit of your land wild if you can.
  • Bumbles are very gentle and won’t act in a threatening manner. If you find a nest move away slowly and walk softly and they’ll leave you alone.
  • Learn to identify the different types of bumble bees. Free I.D. guides can be downloaded here.
  • You can participate in studies that are tracking bumble bees. Athena Anderson at the University of Georgia has developed a nest site survey to learn more about nest site and habitat features for bumble bees throughout North America and make this information available to anyone at no cost. If you find a bumble bee nest, please click on this link to fill out the survey and increase our knowledge of the range of native bumble bees: Bumble Bee Nest Survey
  • The Xerces Society has asked that folks send them photos of yellow-banded and rusty-patched bumble bees and the locations where they were spotted. Email to bumblebees@xerces.org

May the bumbles be with you! Mary Beth and Barbara

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Got behind on my dates. National Honey Bee Awareness Day was yesterday , but just because I missed that boat it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be celebrating our honey bees every other day of the year. So let’s start today by being grateful for all that these  insects do for us — pollinating more than one-third of the food we eat and providing us with sweet, sweet honey.

Here are some fantastic pictures that Mary Beth took yesterday. Enjoy your Sunday!

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Colorado

California


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Colorado


California


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Block Island

California


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This week marks the fourth annual National Pollinator Week. Bees are probably the first thing that come to mind when we think about pollinators, but there are many others that deserve our gratitude and care — hummingbirds, bats, butterflies, and beetles to name a few. I love honeybees best so that’s what I’m going to focus on for today’s tips.

Tip #1 — Bees Need Water

Water is essential for a honeybee colony and if there is no natural source nearby then you should supply it. Bees use water evaporation to cool the hive and for diluting honey to feed to their larvae. A hive can use over a quart of water a day. Think about that — think about how tiny bees are. Now that’s a lot of water hauling!

Supplying your bees with water also keeps them from being a nuisance to your neighbors. In the absence of water you supply, they will use your neighbor’s swimming pools, dog water bowls, leaky water spigots, etc. So give them a water source of their own to keep them happy and healthy.

Make sure the water source is clean, has good footing and provide something they can climb on if they fall in. A bit of straw, small sticks floating on the surface or rocks placed in the water will work.

If you get really ambitious you can make a small pond, a water fountain in a container, or a water garden in a whiskey barrel with a few water plants for the bees to land on to take a drink. I started on my own pond a few weeks ago and will be posting on it soon. I’ve been fascinated with the many kinds of bees and insect drinking from dawn to dusk in the shallows where the water splashes on the rocks. Honeybees will come to the same spot every day to drink, so once you start don’t let the water supply run out.

Tip #2 — Extracting Honey

  • Don’t take uncapped honey. Most of the frame, 7/8, should be capped before you harvest any honey. Unripe honey (uncapped honey) will spoil because of the high water content.
  • Harvest your honey when it’s warm. Honey flows best at 80 degrees.
  • After extracting the honey let it settle a few days to get air bubbles out.
  • Honey is acidic so use stainless steel or glass to store your honey.
  • Save your wax cappings. Drain them of honey and melt them down into a block. Beeswax can be used for making lip balm, polishing furniture, candles, and more. An old sewers trick is to draw thread through a block of beeswax. It makes pulling thread through thick materials so much easier.

Remember, a honeybee colony needs 60 to 90 pounds of honey to survive the winter. If you feel your bees have a surplus then take a frame or two of honey. A medium super will contain 35 to 40 pounds of honey, or 3 – 4 gallons and that should be plenty for you and to share with friends and family.

Tip #3 — Learn Something New

Listen to Organically Managed Beekeeping Methods podcasts. The podcasts are very interesting with great guests speaking about how they manage their own hives and deal with the sometimes complex issues of beekeeping.

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