Most of my associations with bees are good ones, like A.A. Milne’s poem from When We Were Very Young (1924). Pooh Bear is plotting for a honey snack by raiding a beehive high in a tree. While climbing the tree, attempting to seem nonchalant, he sings this ditty:
Isn’t it funny
How a bear likes honey?
Buzz! Buzz! Buzz!
I wonder why he does?
It’s a very funny thought that, if bears were bees,
They’d build their nests at the bottom of trees.
And that being so (if the bees were bears),
We shouldn’t have to climb up all these stairs.
I used to chant this when I encountered bees as a child. Perhaps I thought this little incantation would protect me from stings.
Sue Monk Kidd would agree. In her Secret Life of Bees, she advises when dealing with bees, “If you feel angry, whistle. Anger agitates while whistling melts a bee’s temper. Act like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t. Above all, send the bees love. Every little thing wants to be loved.”
Bees’ value was broadly appreciated until the last half-century or so, when millions of baby-boomers were born, grew up and established families. Accommodating our numbers, the natural landscape was so transformed by subdivisions and industrial farms that most of us were far removed from understanding bees as essential workers. Simultaneously, the remaining natural spaces shrank to the point that farmers were forced to pay for something that bees had always provided for free: pollination. Beekeeping became a necessary business, with hives rented and shuttled about to pollinate orchards and fields.
But nature doesn’t stand still, and now the story has an interesting new twist. Researchers are finding that native bees are cheaper and fertilize blossoms with much greater efficiency than imported ones. The scientific project measured bee activity in hundreds of fields on multiple continents, and calculated that “free-living bees were twice as effective as domesticated honeybees at prompting flowers to produce fruit.” Also, according to the Journal of Science, the proportion of flowers that matured to fruit improved in every field visited by wild insects.
This is a major finding in an atmosphere where bee colony collapse disorder is decimating hives and rapidly increasing the cost of rented bees. California almond farmers collectively spend $239 million annually to rent more than 1 million beehives. Scientists speculate that when wild bees are present, competition forces the rented bees to work harder, flying more frequently among different varieties of trees in an orchard.
Over the years, I’ve enjoyed replacing much of my landscape with native plants. In the process, I noticed something curious about the bees. The typical European honeybees are happy to pollinate anything — in scientific talk they’re called promiscuous. But the native bees — in particular the large, black stingless bumble bees (which I hadn’t seen before I transformed my garden) — have flourished. They make a beeline for my native plants. When my native plants are flowering, my garden is filled with these beautiful native bees. I feel at once grateful and awed at my tiny part in restoring the native landscape.
Emily Dickinson put it this way:
“To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.”
— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.