Monday, May 12, 2008

Bee the Change

I'm sitting on my front porch steps. On my right, a sheet of greenish-brown stretches out to the sidewalk and my neighbor's driveway. Far beneath its under-watered depths, worms move silently, plumbing the thick brown soil. Up top, however, a few clover and dandelions mingle with blades of grass. Nothing wings, hums or flits over its empty expanse.

On my left, the world teems and buzzes in a sea of white, red and purple. Chubby black bumble bees jostle honey bees and petite leaf cutter bees for a sip of lavender. The occasional wasp dips in and a grasshopper or two zip out. Long legged spiders scurry under the leaves and dainty white butterflies dance over feathered flowers.

When the sun awoke, in March, eagerly stretching spring into our Northern California winter, we yanked the grass from one side of our walk and replaced it with a butterfly garden. I attempted to create the shape of a butterfly with flowers and seeds. The plants grew faster than anticipated, though; borage groping across the stepping stone path, scarlet sage reaching out on to the sidewalk, and snap peas, with their soft lavender flowers, twining among the valerian and poppies. What once resembled a floral butterfly now hovers between the driveway and the stone path as a mass of life and flowers, insects and leaves. It has attracted more bees than anything and that turns out to be a pretty good thing.

Last week, while walking the boys to school, I spotted an abandoned copy of the San Francisco Chronicle, loafing in someone's recycle bin. (Yes, that is one of the many advantages to walking or biking instead of driving). What caught my attention was a headline about the decline of bees. Domesticated honeybee populations have declined by 36 percent over the last winter, which was already down significantly from the year before. Wild honeybees and other pollinators are likewise considered endangered though the extent of their decline has not yet been tracked.

Albert Einstein reportedly posited that, "[i]f the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left." It is not as dire as that but, one third of our food crops and three quarters of our flowers require pollination to reproduce. A world without flowers, apples, pumpkins or asparagus seems grim indeed. Fortunately, though, we can do something about it and that action can be very sweet indeed.

1) Go organic: Experts believe that one of the possible causes for bee colony collapse are the new pesticides, which are safer for humans and mammals but "intentionally disrupt insect neurology, causing memory loss and navigation failure". Even if that were not the case, bees are highly susceptible to any pesticides so it is best to not only buy organic at the market but also to avoid using any pesticides at home. Avoiding pesticides in your own garden gives bees, as well as natural predators like ladybugs and preying mantis, the ability to survive, take out your bad bugs and pollinate your cherry tree.

2) Grow for the Bees: With suburban sprawl comes lawns, roads and shops - not much of a bee habitat. Put some bee attracting plants - sunflowers, borage, blueberries, echinacea, thyme, jasmine, cosmos, and so on - in your yard. Better yet, use these plants to replace all or part of your lawn, which is a wasteland as far as bees and other pollinators are concerned. When choosing plants, bear in mind that too much of a good thing is that, too much. Diversify. Plant lots of different species so things are blooming spring through fall. Let an area of your yard go wild, build a bee house, and, once your vegetables bolt, let the flowers bloom. Ignore the clover and dandelions in your lawn. Bees adore them - and I've managed to not water my back "lawn" which, is mostly clover, since our last rain in March. Check out this guide to growing a bee garden.

3) Eat Honey: Here's where I call upon you to sacrifice. Support your local beekeeper by eating their honey (I often substitute it for 1/3 to 1/2 of sugar when baking), applying their sumptuous beeswax lotion to your skin and lighting your house with their soft smelling, delightfully old fashioned beeswax candles. Not only do these products qualify as "local foods", they are also a renewable resource, have a tiny carbon footprint and ensure that beekeeping remains viable. When buying their products, though, make sure you ask your beekeeper if he or she uses antibiotics or chemical treatments to maintain his or her hives.

4) Bee Heard: Write your local representative to ask him or her to support funding for honey bee research. It can be something simple and straightforward, like this:

Dear Lawmaker,

I write to express my concern over the unprecedented decline in the world honeybee population - both domesticated and wild. After suffering severe drops over the last several years, the population declined by 36% again this past winter. To date, the causes for this decline remain unknown. As I am sure you are aware, one third of our food crops - that is $21 billion worth of U.S. seeds and crops - depends upon pollination to reproduce. In the midst of an international food crisis, we can hardly afford to lose additional sources of food. Besides, what is life without avocados and blueberries?

I urge you to support funding for research into the decline of our natural pollinators. In addition, until we know the reason for the unprecedented drop in bee populations, I ask that you move to reinstate laws against importation of non-native bees from outside the country as well as transporting bees across state lines. Finally, please act to protect virgin prairie in Montana and the Dakotas which offer essential pollinator habitat and will further impact the decline of bees if plowed under for farm land.

Thank you for your consideration and action regarding the national honeybee demise. This issue is extremely important to me, and, I believe that upon reflection, it will be just as important to you.


[Your Name and Address]

5) Put Your Money Where Your Honey Is: Join Haagen-Dazs, Burt's Bees and others, and donate to help fund honeybee research or look into keeping bees yourself. It is apparently a very relaxing hobby.

6) Watch the Trailer for The New Movie, Vanishing of the Bees.

As I watch a jumbo bumble bee burrow into one of the foxglove trumpets and hear its hum vibrate from within, I think how worth it is to protect these humble insects, how sweet it is to be loved by bees.


kale for sale said...

First, I love foxgloves! Another theory about the demise of the bees in the bookworm book I'm reading, Uncertain Peril, is that the GMO crops are affecting the bees. There was a scientific reason that I didn't retain but made sense while reading it. I'd already decided to steer clear of GMO food to the degree I could recognize it but this book is sealing the deal. And it's only one side of the story - but what a compelling side it is. Thanks for posting all this information. I was just discussing bees with some friends yesterday.

Joyce said...

You haven't had rain since March?!! I don't know how you grow anything!
I have noticed that our old fashioned crabapple tree, which used to litter the yard with tons of fruit, no longer produces much fruit at all, despite blooming beautifully. This is a change that has occured in the last 10 years or so; before that we had to rake up the rotten crabapples before we mowed, and now we never do. I'm sure this is becasue the there are so few pollinators. The biggest differences in my neighborhood is that in that period of time everyone around us seems to have decided to use lawn services, which come by several times a year and put stuff on the lawns. I'm sure some of it is fertilizer, but some is weed killer, and that really creates that monoculture-type lawn that everyone feels is so important. Not only are we seing fewer pollinators, our butterfly population has declined drastically, even though I do plan for them in my own garden. I really miss those guys! It used to make my day when I could go out and find four or five Tiger Swallowtails sailing around over my zinias.

Jennifer said...

Bees! I saw a couple in my wildflowers yesterday! Yeah!

I've been toying iwth the idea of creating a beehive for wild bees... essentially, you take a nice old log and drill 1/2 inch holes an inch or two deep into it, then set it out in your wildflower garden. The wild bees love to nest in holes, and are more solitary, apparently.

The only thing that keeps me from it is my dogs love of chewing on logs... so I'm waiting until I have completed a fenceoffable area.

Another reason to buy local honey... to help seasonal allergies! :) We eat honey every morning with our breakfast, and my new bread recipe calls for 1/2 cup per loaf!

Green Bean said...

Katrina: Yet another reason to avoid GMO food! It is so scary that we have no idea what the long term effects of GMO are.

Joyce: Well, that is the downside to life here in Northern California. I grew up in So Cal which is far worse on the rain front. Without irrigation, we'd pretty much all die here. What a sad story about your crabapple tree - and what a prime example of the dwindling pollinator population. Here, pretty much everyone has lawn services so that certainly explains some of the drop.

Jennifer: Cool idea. We don't have a dog so that is something I can try. I truly feel that we, concerned individuals, have to do everything we can on this front. A life without bees would be pretty abysmal.

arduous said...

I went to the farmer's market a few weeks ago and bought a jar of honey.

Honey usually lasts me several months or so. However, this honey was SO good, that three weeks later it is ... um half gone.

I thought that meant that I was a pig, but now I learn that it actually means that I really just care about the bees! :)

Green Bean said...

Give, give, give, Arduous. You are living so selflessly to help preserve the earth. What a heroine!

eco 'burban mom said...

Bee gardens are wonderful, unless you are allergic - like one of my boys. However, boys shouldn't be playing ball in the gardens, right? Famous last words...

So, the lavendar and these three tall, purple flowering plants (can't remember the name) that attract the big, fuzzy bumblers in my garden are a great way to keep the art of pollenation going and keep my boys out of the garden. Unless they lost a ball. Or a frisbee. Or the dog. Or the dog's toy... More bee gardens at my house please!

CindyW said...

The bumblebee disappearance is really scary. It may have huge implications on our food system. A couple of months ago, I also heard that there was a weird disease among bats in the north east. Thousands and thousands of them parish with mysterious white dots on their noses. Apparently without these bats eating insects, the crops are expected to be affected.

Our living ecosystem is so connected that when one element is sick, it may tear loose the interwoven fabric. It always scares me when we treat all these elements as if they had no relations with each other. Pesticide is a prime example.

Beany said...

I've been supporting my busy bees as well. Reading about a beekeeper and his efforts really helps in that regard. I've been buying the candles, the lotions and last week I got honey made soap. Its hand cut too so my soap is a bit wonky in shape but I love the imperfections...makes it seem a bit more real.

Going Crunchy said...

We are actually mentioning this as I visit schools. One of our prizes for our summer program is a planting table! Kids all over the community will be planting flowers just for bees- - we even decorated a pot with a picture of one and said we need to help the bees out. I'm putting in a row of sunflowers down the side of my house just for this......

Verde said...

Your garden is (bees)waxing poetic through your blog. It was a lovely read.

We too had no moisture in April, but a few showers in the last few days... which then turned to frost this morning.

I have a book on order for raising been and am trying to decide if this is something I can do.

Natalie said...

Outside of horrific tragedy befalling my kids, there are just a few things that scare me to the point of panic - polar ice caps melting, peak water, and the demise of bees. Of course, all of those things will eventually result in tragedy for all of us, my kids included.

I've been reading "Great Garden Companions" by Sally Jean Cunningham. It's all about getting everything in your veggie garden to work together to yield a beautiful, productive, organic bounty. But a lot of the theory would works for non-veggie gardens as well - attracting beneficial critters thereby reducing your need for other interventions such as pesticides, interspersing plants that will act as shade for others, etc.

And, if we extrapolate out even further, it's good advice for everything we do. Invest time/energy/money/space on those things that work compatibly with the rest of your life. While each step might not be the most expedient or efficient, the system as a whole works in unison with the least possible amount of external input (to paraphrase Bill McKibbon in "Deep Economy").

Those poor bees (and really all of us in a grander sense) suffer so much at the hands of our fragmented lifestyles. Their poor bodies are so taxed by the world they live in, every further change is just another nail in the coffin. And, that applies to us too regrettably!

Raw Food Diva said...

we mst Bee on the same wavelength. I dedicated my mothers day blog to bees!
Did you see the movie yet? I have a link on there to the movie site.
I love me some bees!

Green Bean said...

It's awesome how many of you are thinking about keeping bees.

Natalie: I'm with you. I find the whole bee thing pretty terrifying and, yet, most of the world doesn't give it a second thought.

RFD: Thanks for the link to the trailer. I hadn't seen or heard of it yet but I added it to the post. Important for people to see.


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