Alright, so the title is a little cheesy. But the question does remain. Where would we be without bees?
The gardens of my childhood were filled with bees. Hot summer afternoons in gardens buzzing with their industry. Lying on our backs in the clover, we marvelled at their meandering flight paths, little back legs bundled with yellow pollen. Our raids on the strawberry patch were more deliciously dangerous for the possibility of being stung. When the inevitable happened we endured the pain of having the sting carefully scraped from throbbing limb with a knife. A paste of bicarbonate of soda and water slathered on the wound followed, to soothe the sting. After which we suffered a parental lecture about the poor bee losing its life as a consequence of our carelessness, since they die shortly after delivering that venomous barb.
And honey sandwiches! Who could forget the real honey of our childhoods?
Ahh, those idyllic bee-ful days of my childhood!
A dear friend started me on this path down memory lane recently when she suggested I look at the important role bees play in plant fertilisation.
So, where are they now? What’s going on? Even Spring in my tiny garden doesn’t deliver on the childhood promise of swarms of bees, nor butterflies for that matter, but that’s for another post. Why does it matter?
Bees and fertilization
It matters because bees are prolific pollinators, playing a huge role in the fertilisation of flowers, vegetables and other food crops. I’m sure I’m not telling you something you don’t already know.
But did you know that European honey bees (Apis mellifera) [introduced to Australia around 1822] are incredibly productive? A single colony can easily contain 10,000-60,000 working bees. Each female worker lives for roughly a month and is so effective at pollination that she may forage more than 500 flowers in a round trip. A single bee may range as far as 10km in the search for pollen and nectar. No wonder they say ‘as busy as a bee!’
Furthermore, the familiar European honey bee is not the only kid on the fertilisation block. More recently, attention is being drawn to our native Australian bees. I discovered to my amazement that in Australia we have over 1,600 species of native bee with endearing names like the Teddy Bear and Blue Banded bee, some of which I’ve seen around our local park Callistemons or Bottlebrush (below). They’re an important pollinator for our unique flora.
Increasingly our native bees, like the stingless varieties (genera Tetragonula – previously called Trigona – and Austroplebeia), are also proving to be valuable pollinators of crops such as macadamias, mangos, watermelons and lychees . Their impressive effectiveness as pollinators has even seen them employed by pollination services for commercial growers of these crops. Some native bees have the added advantage of being ‘buzz pollinators’ whereby the vibration of their wings facilitates fertilisation, a feat almost impossible for honey bees.
What’s the reason for the global bee decline?
It appears there’s not one single factor. Dr Les Davies, Chief Regulatory Scientist from APVMA, suggests ‘mutiple interacting pressures which may include habitat loss and disappearance of floral resources, honeybee nutrition, climate change, bee pests and pathogens [like Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) which has wiped out millions of bees in North America], miticides and other chemicals intentionally used in hives and bee husbandry practices, as well as agricultural pesticides,’ are possible factors in the decline of bees. He makes a strong case for being informed about what we spray on our gardens [if this is a path we choose], advocating ‘a need to ensure that a range of regulatory, industry stewardship and educational measures are in place,’ to reduce the risks from pesticides.
My role as a gardener
We all have a stake in maintaining our bio system. When it comes to ‘bee-ing’ a successful gardener, a bit of research has turned up a number of ways I can contribute. It makes sense to plant any garden with bees in mind. A mix of flowers among the vegies will ensure bees are attracted to the garden and will do their bit to ensure bountiful fruit and vegetable crops.
I will be even more mindful of using chemicals in the garden after reading up on bees. While I’ve always preferred natural pest control, heeding Dr Davies’ advice of being more informed about the sprays, fungicides and other chemical products for garden use seems crucial. Especially given I consume the crops I grow, along with a variety of other insects and useful micro organisms who dine on my garden.
“If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”
― Maurice Maeterlinck,
Read more at http://www.yates.com.au/healthy-gardens-need-healthy-bees/#r6Wma0Yg8TwPdexW.99
The travesty of imported honey http://www.tastyhoney.com/blog/honey/australian-honey-imports-from-china-hit-new-record-high/
How to attract bees http://www.yates.com.au/healthy-gardens-need-healthy-bees/#lwW0XsGMCMLsLbz9.97
Honeybee Research http://www.rirdc.gov.au/research-programs/animal-industries/honeybee
Medicinal Benefits of Honey http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2013/02/14/3689565.htm
Bee Biology Research