WASHINGTON - Tireless workers, smart and social, honeybees are essential to the fertility of crops - from almonds in California to blueberries in Maine.
Shelley McNeal, master gardener and bee maven with the Howard County (Md.) Cooperative Extension, likes to share this with audiences for her talks on bees: "Every third bite of food we take is the result of pollinators."
There are other insect pollinators - bumblebees, some wasps and a fly that looks like a wasp - but fuzzy little honeybees are the biggies. They help make backyard flowers and fruits bloom, but their most important role is in agriculture. Every year, hundreds of thousands of bees are trucked from their home apiaries to farms, sometimes in distant states, where they are set out to pollinate crops.
"They are so important to our food sources and to our economy," said McNeal, who has a beehive of her own on her family's 17-acre farm in Howard County. She began keeping bees about nine years ago because her family planted a small orchard and knew they needed bees as pollinators, and also because her father had noticed that his garden wasn't doing as well as it previously had.
The reason her family's garden lacked pollinators and part of the reason bees are being trucked in to carry pollen from one flower to another are the same: Bees are becoming endangered.
Perhaps a quarter of the bee population in the United States - in some places perhaps as much as 50 percent - has been lost since the 1990s, when hives were hit hard by mites. Now there's a new threat, colony collapse disorder, in which whole hives suddenly become empty of adult bees. No one knows why the collapse occurs. It might be from a fungus, parasites, poison from insecticides, bacteria or virus, or some combination. We have no solution.
When the problems arose with the mites, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and university researchers came up with some chemicals that killed them, McNeal said. That worked for a while, and then the mites became resistant, so practices were altered to make the treatment more effective. But there were still problems, so the department took another approach: finding and breeding bees that are mite-resistant.
They found a mite-resistant bee in Russia, and beekeepers can now buy a Russian queen that will lay eggs that grow up into mite-resisting adults. But they're not very plentiful or widely available yet.
McNeal says chemical pesticides should be a last resort. Use integrated pest management to balance beneficial insects and pests. For example, if you handpick Japanese beetles from your roses instead of spraying insecticide to control them, the honeybees won't be killed. If you have to use pesticides, use horticultural oil; insecticidal soap; or Bt, a bacterium that controls such pests as gypsy moths.
Check your clover and dandelions for honeybee activity before applying any treatment to your lawn. McNeal says bees love dandelions. You may want to leave some for them as a food source. Dandelion greens are a tasty and healthy addition to your own salads as well, so hand-pull these whenever possible. Install plants bees like, such as holly, serviceberry, blueberry, verbena, echinacea or lavender.
If you notice bees swarming, call your local cooperative extension service. They have lists of beekeepers in your area who would be delighted to come and get the bees. Swarming is perfectly natural behavior and not dangerous to humans. This activity indicates that the bees are in search of a new home.
Honeybees are not dangerous and will not attack people or pets unless they are threatened. "They only sting in self-defense," McNeal said. Stinging kills them, so it's a bad strategy for the bee. Its only purpose in life is to go out and get nectar, then go back and get more nectar.
Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md., and author of "Anyone Can Landscape" (Ball 2001). Contact him through his Web site, www.gardenlerner.com.