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Garden in the City: Like Food? You'd Better Get Your Buzz On

By Patty Wetli | August 12, 2013 8:39am
 A lesson in the pollinating lives of bees.
The Buzz About Bees
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LINCOLN SQUARE — All summer long I've been so proud of what I've managed to grow in my 32-square-foot gardening plot.

Turns out I can't take a whole lot of credit for the success of my strawberries or tomatoes. That honor goes to the bees.

I got the lowdown on bees at a recent workshop held at Peterson Garden Project's Learning Center, presented by Liz Olney, a graduate student in landscape architecture and an ecology junkie.

Eighty percent of crops are pollinated by honey bees, she told us, and one in three mouthfuls of the food we eat and the beverages we drink owe their existence to pollinators — bees, mostly, but also bats, beetles, butterflies and moths.

In recent years, mites, fungal disease and stress have contributed to Colony Collapse Disorder, aka, the sudden loss of the vast majority of domestic hives in the U.S. honey bees. Bees, Olney informed us, are trucked from Florida's orange season to California's almond season, a road trip that would test the hardiest traveler.

But wait, there's more.

The focus on the disappearing honey bee, including a cover story in TIME magazine, only tells part of the story.

It gets worse.

According to Olney, there are 4,000 different species of "native" North American bees, many of them far more efficient pollinators than their honeyed kin (which possibly originated in Africa). Five hundred of this group — carpenter bees, mason bees and sweat bees, to name a few — are native to Illinois.

And they're dropping like flies. In fact, pretty soon, we might have to change that cliche to dropping like bees.

Pesticides and loss of native habitat and nesting sites — every time you mow your lawn, you're disrupting a possible bee's nest — have contributed to the serious decline of native species. So has the dominance of the honey bee, which is a cutthroat competitor for resources.

The more successful this invader became against natives, the more reliant our food system became on a single pollinator, the more we set ourselves up for a single point of failure.

Unless we want to spend the rest of our lives eating an increasingly narrow diet — ultimately reduced to nothing but corn and soybeans, which self-pollinate, Olney explained — we'd better do something to save the state's native bees and diversify our pollinator portfolio.

I raised my hand and stopped Olney mid-lecture.

"Not to sound like a complete idiot, but how, exactly, does pollination work?"

The dude sitting behind me laughed. Apparently I had asked the gardening equivalent of "Where do babies come from?"

It's possible, that somewhere in the recesses of my education, pollination was explained. It's equally possible that having attended Catholic high school, reproduction of any sort — plant, animal or mineral — was a taboo topic. I have to think that if Sister Blandina had ever lectured on pistils and stamen during biology, it would have stuck in my mind, if for no other reason than the riotous guffaws it would have produced from the teenaged boys in my class.

Olney graciously filled in the gap in my knowledge.

Flowers have a male part that produces pollen and a female part that accepts pollen and shoots it down to the plant's "ovaries." And if they love each very much ....

Actually, it's up to pollinators to grab the pollen from Tab A — bees typically have a space on their bodies akin to velcro, which pollen clings to — and insert it into Slot B. Without pollinators acting as go-betweens, plants would be barren.

Some bees are not particularly choosy about their partners, Olney said. They're attracted to and will pollinate all kinds of flowers. Others are more selective, sticking with a certain family of flower or in some cases limiting their efforts to a single flower. The Adrena violae bee, for example, are solely and hopelessly devoted to violets.

Bumble bees have become particularly prized for their ability to pollinate tomato flowers, according to Olney. In their absence, tomato growers have been known to pollinate their plants by hand using paint brushes (battery-operated toothbrushes are another option), an incredibly labor intensive process that, one has to think, would be mind-numbing beyond belief.

This is our future, people, unless we get our collective buzz on.

The first step, Olney suggested, requires overcoming our conditioned fear of bees: People are almost uniformly trained in toddler-hood to think of bees as the enemy. Kill or be stung, we're taught.

Instead, we ought to be nurturing bees, filling our gardens, roadsides and parkways with native plants to create a floral highway — natural pit stops and refueling stations, if you will — for our yellow-jacketed friends and their pollinating brethren.

"We need to start having these conversations," Olney said, if a mindset shift is to occur in time to make a difference.

On a recent garden walk, I saw that the good people of Bowmanville were already well ahead of the curve, with bee balm and milkweed evident in nearly every yard.

Another simple solution: Build a bee house in your yard or garden to give the buzz-ers a place to nest and rest.

"It's the principle of doing what you can," Olney said.

No pressure. Just the survival of our food system at stake.