Everyone oohs and ahhs when they see butterflies in their garden, but most of us probably don’t get too excited when we see bees there.
That’s changing – and for good reason. Those little bees that buzz around the flowers are indispensable to human life.
I talked with apiarist (a.k.a. beekeeper) extraordinaire Cathy Kozma recently after her presentation to the Beach Garden Society and learned some really amazing stuff about the awesome honeybee. A few fast facts:
- One-third of all the food-producing plants we eat MUST be pollinated by bees.
- Of the most important food crops in the world, 70 per cent are pollinated by bees. These include veggies such as beans, tomatoes, carrots and squash, fruits like blueberries apples, pears and oranges, and nuts like almonds. It’s fair to say that the agriculture economies of California and Florida depend on bees pollinating their food crops.
- Bees are worth billions of dollars to the agricultural industry as a whole for the work they do as pollinators.
- Bees are so important in Ontario that the Bees Act was first passed in 1892 for their protection and well-being, with sections covering ownership, registration and management of bee hives. Over the years it’s been updated frequently, most recently this past July, when restrictions were added on controversial neonicotinoid pesticides.
- Bees are vegetarian, so they won’t buzz around your barbecue. Wasps are the pesky meat-eaters. To tell them apart: bees are fuzzy, wasps are hairless and shiny.
So what’s the buzz on pollen? If you’re a “newbee,” the reason all this pollination stuff is important is because that’s how flowers turn into fruit, which contains their seeds, and which we also eat. Tomatoes, oranges and apples have comparatively small flowers, big fruit and dozens of smallish seeds.
Bees gather pollen for their own protein-rich food, but also carry it from flower to flower on their fuzzy bodies. The cross-pollination helps flowers form fruit and seeds, and on goes the life cycle – for bees, plants and humans, too.
A sweet story
Most of us associate bees with honey, a fascinating story on its own. Those busy buzzers collect nectar from flowers and store it in a special stomach pouch. The collector bees take this back home to the hive, where worker bees fan their little wings at a tremendous rate to evaporate its water content and turn it into honey. (Think tapping maple trees and boiling off the syrup.)
The sweet stuff provides carbohydrates that go with the protein in pollen to create a balanced diet for the bee colony.
Humans caught on to the idea that honey is good stuff thousands of years ago. Egyptians kept bees in 2400 B.C., and honey has been found, still edible, in the tombs of pharaohs. The Old and New Testaments of the Bible are full of references to honey.
Plenty of famous and/or distinguished people have had bees on the brain. Noted Renaissance sculptor Bernini dotted bees all over the huge bronze canopy he designed for the altar in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. (They honoured the family crest of the pope at the time). Napoleon Bonaparte chose the bee as his personal emblem. Sherlock Holmes kept bees when he retired.
Actor Henry Fonda kept bees as a hobby and gave jars of honey to friends. Award-winning author Neil Gaiman is also proud of the awards he’s won for the honey from his hives. Just last year, actor Morgan Freeman became a beekeeper, converting his 124-acre spread in Mississippi into a bee refuge with acres of clover, hundreds of flowering trees, 26 hives and a hired gardener.
Planting flowers for the bees
Though bees and food crops go together like bread and honey, your own flower garden plays a part in keeping the bees healthy and happy. The higher the population of bees, the better for our food supply, so your own flowers are beautiful bee-feeding stations. A few tips from Cathy:
- Bees don’t see the colour red, so ideal flowers are blue, purple, yellow and white.
- Native plants are big for bees – purple coneflower, sunflowers, bee balm/Monarda didyma.
- Bees also like herbs such as sage and lavender, and weeds like dandelions and clover.
- Bees get to work early in spring, so bulbs such as crocus and snowdrops can give them a head start.
The flower garden is where Cathy got buzzed on bees in the first place, she says.
“Over the years I noticed there were fewer and fewer bees in my garden. At a Seedy Saturday seed exchange, I met someone who kept bees and went on from there.”
Now she has 11 hives of her own north of Toronto, and has started her own retail and consulting business, Bees Are Life (1477 Eglinton Ave. W., beesarelife.ca), where she sells local honey, beekeeping supplies, bee-themed jewelry and other bee needs.
Mary Fran McQuade is a local writer specializing in gardening and lifestyle