Birds and the Bees: The Talk that You Never Had

Father to pre pubescent son: “It is time for you and me to talk about the birds and the bees.”

Son: “Sure Dad.  What do you want to know?”

I am impressed by many of the things that kids learn about in school today that were never talked about in my day.  Subjects like multiculturalism, ‘character’, fairness, recycling, worm composting and bullying are just a few.  But ask a kid today about the importance of fostering honey bees in the neighbourhood and chances are they will give you a blank stare.  Come to that, most adults do not seem to understand that the future of civilization as we know it depends on a thriving culture of honey bees. 

Albert Einstein said, “Mankind will not survive the honeybees’ disappearance for more than five years.”  

What, you might ask, did Mr. Einstein know that the rest of us don’t?  I wondered the same thing and did some digging for answers.  What I came up with is surprising, alarming and hopeful all at the same time. 

 

Why are bees important?

Bees are natures’ primary pollinators.  Given that many of the plants that produce our food are pollinated by them we would be doing ourselves a service to pay attention to them.  Seeing as reports over the last 6 years indicate that their population is in steep decline throughout much of the world, including where you live, nurturing and protecting them seems like a good idea. 

 

Perfect and Imperfect Flowers. 

It is true that many plants have ‘perfect’ flowers, complete with both male and female sexual parts.  This might lead you to think that a pollinator with wings is hardly necessary.  Your tomato plants, for example, do not require pollination from bees or hummingbirds or butterflies for that matter.  But any experienced gardener will tell you that the greater the population of bees in a neighbourhood the more productive the tomatoes, peppers and potatoes (all members of the same solanaceae family).  The pollinating activity of bees is beneficial even when it is not entirely necessary. 

‘Imperfect’ flowers exist on a host of important food plants including all members of the cucurbit or squash family.  They have female and male flowers, usually on the same plants though not always, which require a visit from one of nature’s flying pollinators in order to mix things up.  It is the transfer of pollen from flower to flower (anther to stamen, to be exact) that fertilizes your pumpkin or cucumber and nothing does it quite as efficiently as bees do.  About one third of everything that we eat has been pollinated by a bee, according to Cathy Kozma, Past Chair of the Beekeepers Co-operative.

Bees dig in to a nice squash flower looking for food and come out covered in pollen grains.  I have heard that they buzz a lot when they are in the middle of the flower in an effort to dig as deeply as possible for what they are really looking for.  Buzzing is nature’s way of removing the pollen and maximizing the exposure of it to the body and pollen pockets of the bee, so the theory goes.  Like power sanding a wood working project: buzzing makes bees one of nature’s most efficient pollinators. 

 

Are Bees in Decline? 

The population of bees IS in decline, this is a fact.  According to Cathy the condition that is causing the decline in the bee population is referred to as CCD or Colony Collapse Disorder.  While there is no one cause for it, CCD is blamed on:

  1. the Varroa Destructor mite
  2. loss of natural habitat
  3. ‘monoculture’ agricultural practices
  4. wide spread pesticide use

 

What can the average hobby gardener do to help?

Considering that the average bee performs her work (and they are all female) between a 6 and 10 km radius of their home there is lots that you can do.  First of all I recommend that you plant plants that are attractive and useful to bees.  My list includes:

Bachelors Buttons (easy to grow annual)

Borage (useful herb and soil enhancer)

Russian Sage (a meter high perennial that flowers for up to 8 weeks)

Bee Balm or monarda.  One of my favourite perennials for the sun.  Grows up to one meter.

Sunflowers.  The kids will love these too.

Sage.  A useful herb and rather fragrant.

Oregano.  Plant one and enjoy a lot.  An aggressive groundcover in sun.

Basil.  You want this for your tomatoes come September anyway.

In addition Cathy recommends that we:

  1. Plant larger patches of flowering plants to encourage bee foraging.
  2. Diversify your blooming plant portfolio.  Have bee-friendly plants in bloom throughout the season.
  3. Avoid the use of pesticides.
  4. Let some of your garden ‘naturalize’.  This will encourage bees to nest and tunnel without being disturbed.  Note: bumble bees nest in the ground; some native bees build their nests in dead raspberry canes. 
  5. Provide a constant source of water.  A hive will consume about ½ a liter of water a day.  Put out small containers of clean water and float a small piece of wood in it to provide a landing strip and access to the water.

 

Asked why Cathy and the volunteers at the Beekeepers Co-op do it, she responds, “I feel privileged to have the opportunity to get up close and personal with honeybees, to teach others about their incredible world, and I see this as an easy way to make a significant contribution to making my world a better place.”

Touché.   Next time I am called upon to talk to a youngster about the birds and the bees I think I will call Cathy Kozma.

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