Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bee the Change

From the bean of Green Bean.





Last May, I wrote this post as I pondered on the plight of the honeybee which are declining in terrifying numbers every year. Leading the fight to save the bee is ice cream giant Haagen-Dazs (click here to ask Haagen-Dazs to go organic and help the honeybees even more), which recently contacted the Booth and asked us to spread the word. Winter might seem like a strange time to think about bees but saving our pollinators is a year round endeavor. Look out at your garden - a blank slate under a blanket of snow - and think of what you can do come spring to help pollinators. Or shop for natural beeswax candles as a thoughtful, renewable and clean holiday gift. Please read on to learn about what is happening to our natural pollinators and what we can do to help them.


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.

Sincerely,
[Your Name and Address]



5) Put Your Money Where Your Honey Is: Join Haagen-Dazs (they offer a free children's booklet that is part ecology lesson and part bee-themed activity book), 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 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.

8 comments:

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

I attended a Backyard Beekeeping workshop earlier this year, and it was fascinating! I definitely encourage anyone who has the space to look into it. We're currently in an apartment, but we're planning on getting some bees as soon as we have a yard. At least according to the class I took, it's not too much work, and just a couple of hives could supply a family of four with enough honey that you wouldn't need to buy sugar.

I've been experimenting with replacing sugar with honey in a lot of recipes, so if anyone wants to try it, here are some guidelines:

1) Use 1/2 c. honey per 1 c. sugar.

2) Reduce liquid by 1/4 c. per 1 c. honey.

3) Reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees (the honey makes it brown faster).

Mama said...

I first found out about the bee problem while out yard sale-ing 2 yrs ago. I came upon a garage full of beekeeping supplies. When I inquired why they were selling them, the owner replied..."because the bees have left". The statement baffled me..."What do you mean? Where did they go?" She didn't know where or why, and gone with them was her small business making local honey and beeswax products. I had no idea how profound the problem was until I got home that day and googled "where have the bees gone?" Thanks for your tips, they are good ones.
BTW, we have a lawn full of clovers for the bees, and found it keeps the groundhogs in our area happy and away from our garden as well!

fullfreezer said...

We eat quite a bit of local honey and have planted lots of bee friendly flowers in our yard. It's interesting that a lot of the flowers that the bees like produce seeds that keep the birds happy in the winter as well.
Oh, and the Haagen-Dazs 'save the bees' honey ice cream is wonderful. Just a hint of honey and oh so rich. Yum. We don't buy much premium ice cream so it was a real treat to support a good cause.

Green Bean said...

Erin: Okay, and here I thought I was cool for attending a Backyard Chickens workshop. You rock! And thanks for the honey tips. I use honey a lot in lieu of sugar but didn't realize number 3.

Mama: A lawn full of clover provides immense benefits, doesn't it! How sad about the garage sale. It's really amazing what it happening to the bees and how little you hear about it.

Fullfreezer: I've noticed the same thing with flowers, bees and birds. I had such success with those flowers last year - and they didn't require much water - that I'm expanding my "butterfly garden" this year. And thanks, or no thanks, for the tip on the ice cream. As if my hips need more sweets this time of year!! But it is for a good cause and all . . . thinking . . . ;-)

kale for sale said...

I just had a long talk with the old honey guy on Sunday and bought honey that comes from the Zen Center nearby. I'd never considered the actual landscape from where the honey was gathered but after tasting different kinds I got it. I swear I can taste the eucalyptus trees and the quiet. Thanks for posting about the bees and especially the encouragement to eat more honey! I may go and have a spoonful now.

Graham_Cliff said...

Does anyone commenting on this "blog" know if bees, as an insect species, are affected by the circadian disruption caused by the 24 hour day, which we now "enjoy" in the western world? It is destroying the the night so that bats are in serious decline and so too are whip-poor-wills. Professor Gerhard Eisenbeis, of Mainz, Germany has described artificial night lighting sucking insects from habitat areas like a vacuum cleaner. No bugs therefore no food for insectivores which are also in decline. How about bees?

Green Bean said...

Katrina: It is amazing, isn't it, when you taste all the honey side by side and the beekeeper tells you "this one is sage" and "this one is wildflower" and you can really taste it!

Graham: I really don't know but that is so interesting. I was aware of the decline of the bats but did not know that artificial lighting was considered to be a potential cause. I wrote a post a while back giving a number of other reasons to leave your lights off at night. None of us benefit from a world lit 24/7.

ib mommy said...

Last spring I went to a beekeeping seminar offered through our State Extension Agency. They are promoting backyard beekeeping and actually gave away starter kits to about 24 people!

I've been toying with the idea of taking out a Vitex agnus-castus from my front yard to free up more space for edibles but the bees just love it and I can't bring myself to cut it down!

I think this year I will experiment with keeping a colony in my back yard. I can probably get away with that better than with chickens!

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