Friday, August 26, 2011

Creating Pollinator-Friendly Yards

If you want native bees and butterflies to visit your yard, the first thing you need to do is reduce or eliminate your use of pesticides. Instead of spraying chemicals, find other ways to control weeds and insect pests in your garden and yard. Scientists have shown that native bee populations drop by around 50 percent where insecticides have been sprayed. Bumblebees are paralyzed by neonicotinoids – a class of widely used insecticides that act on the nervous system of insects – at levels as low as 12 parts per billion.

Provide as diverse, natural landscape as you can. Are there sections of your property that you can let go a bit wild for the summer and mow once a year? Think about planting native shrubs and trees – they not only enhance the habitat for bees but can add value to your landscaping. Native bees, it turns out, like to forage close to home. While honeybees readily fly two miles to collect nectar and pollen, wild bees rarely fly over 1/2 mile.

Bees depend on nectar for food throughout the entire summer. So think about planting things that bloom over the entire season. Check out the list of flowers bees love below.

Bees also need a source of water. They use water to cool their hives and dilute the honey they feed to their larvae. On extremely hot days, bees might spend more time carrying water back to the hive than foraging for pollen and nectar. Birdbaths work, but make sure the water is shallow, as bees can drown. You can also put a rock or a floating bit of wood in deeper water to provide a place for thirsty bees to land on.

Wild bees need nesting sites. Most of them are solitary, and about a third of them build their nests in wood. They tunnel into the soft pithy centers of some twigs (raspberry canes and sumac) or use tunnels left behind by wood-boring beetle larvae. The other 70 percent are ground-nesters, digging narrow tunnels down to small chambers of brood cells. Ground-nesting bees need direct access to the soil surface and prefer sloped or well-drained sites. Bumblebees, too, build their colonies underground, moving into abandoned rodent burrows.

Encouraging wood-nesting bees can be as simple as retaining dead or dying trees and branches in the hedgerows and encouraging the growth of elderberry, blackberries and raspberries, sumac and dogwood. To attract ground-nesters, leave a small area untilled for a year or actively clear some of the vegetation from a gently sloping or flat area.

Flowers Bees Love

Red maple, chives, Shadbush/ serviceberry, asters, borage, bee plant (Cleome), cosmos, purple coneflower, Joe-pye weed, sunflowers, hyssop, apple blossoms,  mints, bergamot/ bee balm (Monarda), basil, oregano, poppies, plum and cherry blossoms, roses, willows, sage, goldenrod, dandelion, thyme, red clover, blueberries, mullein, zinnias.

You can learn more about bee-friendly gardening here.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Following Bumblebees

Bumblebees are fun to watch and, when they're collecting pollen in a bunch of flowers, they're pretty easy to follow. But once they load up and head for home they fly too fast and too high to follow. And when another bee shows up on those flowers later, I always wonder if it's the same bee or a new one.

The bumblebees on my sunflowers are so focused on collecting pollen that I could put a dot of paint or white-out on their backs (thorax) and they might not notice. Then at least I would know whether the same ones come back day after day.

But wouldn't it be cool if we could glue little radio-tracking devices on them and follow them around? Some scientists in London have done just that.Scientists have also glued tiny radar transponders onto bees and followed them with radar. They discovered that bees fly faster than they thought (about 30 miles per hour) and farther (up to 12 miles). And yes, they do indeed make "bee lines" home.

Here's a video from BBC's wildlife show "Animal Camera" hosted by Steve Leonard.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Natives in the Garden

It's been five years since honeybees started dying in large numbers across the country. Scientists are still trying to figure out why and what they can do about it. Eric Mussen, a university extension bee specialist at the University of California at Davis, says that beekeepers are still losing, on average, 30 percent or more of their colonies each year. Not everywhere, of course, but in enough places to make Colony Collapse Disorder a continuing puzzle.

Meanwhile, some farmers are wondering whether – and how – they can get native bees to take up the slack. There are more than 4,000 species of native bees in North America, ranging from the size of a fruit fly to nearly three inches long. Like their honeybee cousins, native bees work hard to gather pollen to feed their young and, in the process pollinate such crops as tomatoes, eggplant, watermelons and other melons, zucchini, cucumbers, winter squash and pumpkins. They also pollinate strawberries, raspberries and blueberries.

Native bees, it turns out, work harder than their honeybee cousins. Squash bees get up earlier in the morning and bumblebees keep working in cold and wet weather. Not only that, but it takes only 250 blue orchard bees (Osmia) to pollinate an acre of apple trees – a job that would normally require 15,000 – 20,000 honeybees.
Native bees also make honeybees work harder. Scientists studying pollinators on hybrid sunflowers discovered that when wild native bees were around, honeybees were up to five times more efficient in pollinating the sunflowers. Apparently the natives made the domesticated bees nervous, causing the honeybees to switch flowers more frequently.

So, how do farmers attract those hard-working natives to their farms?

 “We let things go a little wild,” says Teresa Vanek of Red Tail Farm in Trumansburg, NY. She and her partner raise bees and sell the honey. They also grow a diversity of vegetables on their four-acre organic farm. So they make sure there are lots of flowers growing on their farm to provide nectar for bees.

When harvesting broccoli and related crops they leave older plants in the beds to flower, instead of pulling them out and tossing them in the compost. Bees love the yellow and white flowers produced by arugula, radishes, mustards and broccoli-raab. They also let their cover crops –buckwheat, white clover and red clover – go to flower and plant blocks of sunflowers to attract the pollinators.

Does it work? “We have a lot of wild bees,” Vanek said, noting that bumblebees and sweat bees are abundant on her crops.

Friday, August 5, 2011

A True Science Mystery: The Hive Detectives

Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe
Written by Loree Griffin Burns, photos by Ellen Harasimowicz
80 pages, for ages 9 and up
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010

I confess: I love bees – though not their stingers. And I love HMH’s “Scientist in the Field” series. So when Hive Detectives came out I knew I had to review it. After meeting the author, I knew I had to interview her, too. Today you get both.

This book is a mystery – after all, we still don’t know exactly what caused millions of honeybees to die off. Loree Burns deftly weaves the thrill of honeybee “crime scene investigation” with the science of bees and pollination in this well-crafted and readable story about Colony Collapse Disorder. The photography (mostly by Ellen Harasimowicz) is stunning and puts us right there in the thick of the action.

The book opens with Mary, a hobbyist beekeeper, heading out to check her hives. Honeybees are gentle, Burns assures us, though later she admits to being stung five times while researching the book. (Four of those were intentional – she was trying to get a photo of the stinger, she says.)

Then Burns introduces us to Dave Hackenberg, a commercial beekeeper who manages 3,000 hives. In a normal year he follows the season, trucking hives to almond orchards in California in February so the bees can pollinate the trees and then to citrus groves, apple orchards and even the blueberry fields in Maine. It’s a lot of traveling for his bees, so after a busy season he heads to Florida to give his bees a well-deserved rest.

And that’s where we meet Dave: in Florida, in November of 2006 when he discovers that 20 million of his bees have vanished. Gone. No dead bodies or evidence of attack by pests or anything. Nothing.

How do millions of bees just disappear? That’s what Burns sets out to discover, and in her search she introduces us to the team of scientists who investigated what became known as Colony Collapse Disorder – CCD for short. Just like the detectives on CSI, the bee scientists collect evidence: pollen, wax and brood from the hives and any dead bees they find. They conduct bee autopsies, search for viruses and mites and any other causes of disease. The biggest challenge they face: most of the bees from the collapsing hives are never found. It’s hard to do science on something that is not there.

One of the things I like about this book – aside from the great appendix and resources at the back – is that Burns ends her story by returning to Mary’s backyard bee hives. “The story about Colony Collapse Disorder is unfinished,” Burns says. “We still don’t know what causes it, and it has killed a lot of bees for many years now. I didn’t want to end with the unknown and sinister; I wanted to end with hope. Bringing readers back into the hives of Mary, a backyard beekeeper whose bees are doing well despite CCD, was a way to do that.”

Because it’s a mystery story I asked Burns about how she incorporated the element of solving a puzzle.

“Every book I write feels like a puzzle that needs solving. For months and months, my job is to soak up information: I read books and articles, interview experts and spend time familiarizing myself with the topic and the techniques used to study it in the field. I immerse myself completely, and by the end of the research phase of the project, I have what feels like thousands of pieces with which to tell the story. The process begins, for me, with figuring out how to fit those pieces together into a satisfying story that will resonate with readers and keep them turning the pages.”

Burns even attended Bee School!

Colony Collapse Disorder was discovered five years ago. Has any new research come out since Hive Detectives was published?

“There have been many interesting reports, including a study that looked more closely at the effect of cell phones on honey bee health,” says Burns. “But the bottom line is that no single factor has yet been shown to cause CCD in honey bees. Scientists still believe the disorder is the result of multiple factors that weaken bees in combination, including pesticide exposure, hive pests, viruses, and poor diet.”

So what can children and their families do to protect honeybees and native bees?

“The most important thing any of us can do,” says Burns, “is to protect land from development and from pesticides. Bees need chemical-free places to forage and nest, and this includes lawns and gardens.” She also suggested that people get involved in helping scientists better understand honey bees and other pollinator species – check out The Great Sunflower Project.

After learning so much about bees, Burns wants to keep hives of my own. “There is something about working with bees that makes me feel peaceful and satisfied,” she said. “The view into the daily lives of a family of social insects is interesting, the benefit to my garden is undeniable, and the honey is a sweet bonus.” She doesn’t have her own hives yet, but has the next best thing – neighbors who keep bees. “Their bees work my gardens, I help them with beekeeping chores if they need it, and we are all in honey year round,” she says.  Pretty sweet.

You can find out more about Loree Burns at   This post is  part of a new book round-up called STEM Friday (Science Technology Engineerting & Math) hosted today at NC Teacher Stuff. On August 8 we'll go drop in on the Nonfiction Monday Round-Up hosted this week by Apple With Many Seeds.  Review copy of Hive Detectives provided by the publisher.