Fairchild’s tropical garden column

How to help our beleaguered bees


Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Bee populations are declining precipitously. Sadly, that’s no longer news.

Beginning in fall 2006, beekeepers reported fatalities of 30 to 90 percent of their hives, U.S. Department of Agriculture records show. This phenomenon became known as Colony Collapse Disorder, which affects worker bees directly, and consequently entire colonies.

No single cause of Colony Collapse Disorder has been found; it is often considered the result of a combination of problems.

Before the 1600s, North America had no honeybees. Honeybees, like the Europeans who introduced them, were immigrants from the Old World. But there was no lack of bees here. We had bumblebees, sweat bees (often confused with flies), digger bees, mason bees, carpenter bees and leaf-cutter bees — and still do.

If these other types of bee are new to you, don’t feel ignorant — there are an estimated 20,000 species of bees worldwide. That’s a huge number, even in the insect world.

Besides their intrinsic beauty and intricate, complex lifestyles, bees are of great value to life on Earth, particularly to humans. There are animals that eat bees, live on, in or with bees. Burrowing bees even recycle our soil nutrients. I bet a hefty book could be written on the plants and animals that depend on bees.

But if you want a price tag to convince you of their value to us, the USDA Agricultural Research Service reports that bee pollination adds about $15 billion to crop value annually. That’s not including the value of the crops themselves, which is much higher.

But it is much more complicated than money. Cost aside, how could we possibly manage to pollinate hundreds of millions of plants ourselves? If you think food is costly now, imagine having to pay for even more human involvement in the process.

Some of the contributing factors for CCD include Varroa mites, which transfer viruses to both wild and kept bees; and the fungus Nosema apis, which is a parasite to honeybees. Extended cold, which forces bees to remain confined together in their hives, seems to increase infection rates of Nosema. There’s even a mite that infests honeybees from within their trachea, feeding on their bug blood, called hemolymph. Scientists are developing ways to mitigate all these plagues, but with mixed results.

So what can we do? The one contributing factor of Colony Collapse Disorder we can more easily control is pesticides — in particular, crop pesticides in the class of neonicotinoids. There are differing opinions on the actual damage done by neonicotinoids, of course, but it’s important to note who’s funding the various studies.

Don’t indiscriminately spray bug killers, especially outdoors. Often the residual chemicals left behind will not harm your target (like a lubber grasshopper) but will kill a honeybee. If you must spray, avoid doing so at midday, when bees are out foraging for pollen and nectar.

Also avoid herbicides, particularly those containing atrazine, which was banned throughout Europe because it contaminated groundwater. It also wreaks havoc on susceptible amphibians, causing all kinds of hormonal and reproductive destruction. Their permeable skin makes them extra vulnerable to pollutants; but skin aside, are we really so different from amphibians? Pick the weeds by hand (then compost them), and we will all be healthier.

Supplementing their food supply is an effective way to aid the bees. In times of stress, finding a supply of pollen and nectar is literally a lifesaver. Native flowering plants, as usual, are your best bet. Those weedy-looking beggar’s needles are a favorite of bees and butterflies; so are many other wildflowers. Bees also love coconut palm flowers, so avoid cutting them off prematurely.

A nice strategy is to offer plants that flower at different times of the year to provide a steady food supply. Strive for diversity and for plants that produce a lot when they do flower, like lantana and firebush. My native wild coffee bush serves as the local bee meeting place when it flowers. Even planting food for yourself, like plants in the cucumber family, will produce flowers attractive to bees.

Honeybees aren’t the only beleaguered workers. Another important pollinator is the bumblebee, known to pollinate blueberry, tomato, eggplant and peppers among others. Leafcutter and other bees are pollinators also.

You can assist them in similar ways to the honeybee, but also by providing areas of bare sandy soil for their subterranean dwellings. Some solitary bees will live in cavities you can create by drilling holes in a block of wood and hanging it in a tree, or try tying a clump of bamboo stems together for the same result.

Remember, there’s no need to fear bees. They really do not want to sting you. Stinging doesn’t benefit them, and often means the end of their life. Keep some flowers growing to feed them, and they’ll feed us all amply in return.

Kenneth Setzer is writer and editor at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

Read more Home & Garden stories from the Miami Herald

 <span class="cutline_leadin">COZY, CASUAL CHARM:</span> Downsizing from a larger home is an art, but you can still maintain a stylish space.


    The art of downsizing is well worth the effort

    My life changed the day I visited a friend who had downsized into a charming home on a little lake on the outskirts of Kansas City, Mo. I fell in love with the quiet community of small, unassuming homes built decades ago around a sleepy lake.

Neil Patrick Harris listed his home in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood of Los Angeles at $2.995 million.

    Hot Property: Los Angeles

    Country stars selling Malibu pad for $7.5 million

    Country music superstars Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood have put their place in Malibu up for sale at $7.5 million.

This impressive and rather rare vase was made in England by a company that was founded in 1820 to make utilitarian items out of stoneware.


    How old is this vase from my great-grandfather?

    Q: Attached are photos of a vase that once belonged to my great-grandfather. It is marked “Coulton, Burslem” and is decorated with painted poppies and a three-dimensional dragon. It is marked with an emblem with a crown on top and the number 1922. It is 221/2 inches tall. Would it be possible for you to tell me how old it is and the approximate value?

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category