The Plight of the Honeybee

Plight of the Honeybee

honeybeeHelp nurture pollinators by creating a wildlife corridor—even

small urban gardens can become nature preserves!


Many gardeners are intrigued by the idea of creating a

garden that will attract and nourish birds and bees and

butterflies, but few realize that such a garden can make a

genuine contribution to the well-being of wild creatures. Bees in

particular are suffering and there’s quite a lot we can do about

it. Honeybees have been hammered by a triple blow in recent

years. Millions have died because of tracheal mites that don’t

bother solitary bees at all. Further millions have been killed by

pesticides and certain herbicides intended for other targets.

Honeybees don’t really belong in the New World, let alone the

Pacific Northwest. Originally, a few hives were brought to New

England by settlers from Europe. Soon, they had adapted to the

new land and were so naturalized that many people forgot their

non-native status. In time, honeybees made their way west with

the wagon trains.


Once here, the social honeybees lost no time in taking

over the territory. Nobody knows how many native bees (all of

which are solitary, rather than collective hive-building bees)

lost out to the more efficient honeybees. Over the past decade,

disease has evened the score, but at a terrible price for both

team players and loner bees. If you have noticed poor fruit set or

low vegetable yields in recent summers, lack of pollination may

well be the underlying cause. The best way to avoid such

problems is to encourage native bees and other pollinators to

make their homes in our gardens. To learn a lot more about the

habits and needs of our gentle, nonaggressive native bees, seek

out a pair of handbooks by Bellingham, Washington author,

Brian Griffin. The Humble Bumble Bee ($9.95) comes only as a

handbook, but The Orchard Mason Bee book ($9.95) also

comes in audio tape ($10) and video ($15) versions. All are

published by Knox Cellars Press in Bellingham.

Brian began learning about native bees through

observation. For instance, he discovered that our tiny native

solitary wasps eat aphids. Brian first found these tiny,

nonaggressive wasps when experimenting with making nesting

boxes with holes of varying sizes. One day, he noticed that a

small-holed box was filling up fast. He opened one of the the

plugs and discovered a single egg and about 75 aphids, alive but

stunned by a paralytic enzyme, stuffed into place with pine

pitch. Over time, he realized that when the wasp larvae hatch,

they eat their way out and emerge as mature wasps that will feed

on pesky garden aphids.


Many nurseries now carry both native bee and aphid-eating

wasp houses and kits. Every gardener can do a little bit toward making

bees more welcome and protected. Not using poisons is a huge

contribution. Providing housing is another. Nurseries sell Mason bee

kits, which include little apartment houses for solitary bees. These are

chunks or blocks of wood with a zillion holes drilled into them. Some

models come with paper straw sleeves, so you can change the sheets

after each season’s guests leave. Most are simple rectangles with utterly

regular grids of holes. More artistic models are irregularly shapes and

drilled, making them look more at home in naturalistic gardens. The

bees don’t really have a preference, and will use either kind of hotel

indiscriminately. ln return for your hospitality, they will pollinate your

garden. Most bees, honey or solitary, have a fairly limited range. That

means if your yard is small and your neighbor keeps bees, you will

probably reap the benefits as well. If you have a large garden that isn’t

very close to others, you may want to invest in a beekeeping kit.

Most beekeepers suggest beginning with Mason or solitary

bees because their care is very simple. Honeybee care is a lot more

complex, and uninformed beekeepers can add to disease problems

rather than resolving them. If you love the idea of keeping bees, want

to make your own honey mix, or find your fruit and vegetable

production is not what it should be, contact your local branch of the

Beekeepers Association. These kindly and informative folks will give

you all the buzz on how to get started with honey and other kinds of



If you buy them during the fall, Brian Griffin suggests storing

native bees in the refrigerator for the winter. Many refrigerators are

too dry for slumbering bees, so he advises putting the pollinator packs

into a paper bag, adding a barely moist paper towel. Check the towel

every month or so and rewet as needed through the winter. If you

already have bee houses in place, be sure they are in a cool, dry place

where rain won’t swell the wooden blocks. Brian recommends bringing;

bee houses into an unheated garage or hanging them undeneath the

eaves. Although they prefer a steady winter temperature of 38 degrees

Fahrenheit, mason bees can take quite a bit of frost. That’s because

their blood contains natural glycol, the same antifreeze we put in our



By February, when the first flowers bloom, your bee houses

can go back outside. Set mason bee houses on a warm, south-facing

wall, where they’ll get all the heat going. Bumble bee nests (which

look very different) need to be put on the cooler North side of the

house, because the sun’s heat can kill infant bumbles. In order to be

sure your early risers have plenty to eat, consider planting their spring

wake-up snacks now. ln my garden, the first bees are always found on

snow crocus, the early blooming species like golden bunch (Crocus

ancyrensis) that appear in February and March.

All the Oregon grapes are excellent bee plants, especially

forms of early flowering Mahonia aquifolium. In Brian Griffin’s garden,

the first mason bees gorge themselves on a big old lily of the valley

shrub, Pieris japonica. There are many forms of this attractive

evergreen, all decked with clustered white, fragrant flowers from late

winter through spring. Blueberries, huckleberries, loganberries, and

salal are equally popular with early bees, whose gentle hum enlivens

the garden as much as any early birds’ chirps. Plant your first flowers

on the sunny south side of the house, where the bees will find them

close at hand when they awaken. To ensure yourself (or your favorite

gardener) of a bountiful garden next year, start planning and planting

now. Next spring, when the garden is abuzz with busy pollinators,

you’ll be glad you made room for our mild mannered, productive

native bees.


Pollination Nation

It’s curious to think that we humans may owe our

culture, if not our very existence, to bees. Nearly two thirds of

the world’s flowers are pollinated by bees and other insects (like

moths, mosquitoes, and wasps). lf Dependent species include

the majority of fruits, flowers, vegetables, grains, and herbs that

have sustained us for millennia. Some plants can be pollinated

by wind or gravity or a passing animal. Others are serviced by

birds or bats. Most, however, are propagated by bees. If ripe

flowers don’t get pollinated, no fruit or food crop can form.

Without plentiful food crops, formal agriculture is difficult.

Without the abundance created by agricultural advances,

humans might still be living in hunter-gatherer clans.

Over thousand of years, humans developed a respectful,

even affectionate working relationship with bees. Bee keeping

has been commemorated by poets and garden writers as long as

humans have kept written records. Unfortunately, that

relationship has become increasingly strained: Even as

exploding world populations demand ever greater yields from

our crops, encroaching development, chemical farming, and

pollution are destroying the natural habitat of bees and other



What can ordinary gardeners do about it? It’s easy to

feel that such huge problems can only be solved by huge repairs,

and in many respects, that is sadly so. Even if we devote our

whole backyard to creating habitat for bees, birds, and other

native pollinators, one small patch can’t support enough wild

life to really matter. But there is great strength in numbers. If

many of us devote even part of the land in our trust to their

support, we can weave a living green web that stretches from

coast to coast.

Nearly a third of all North Americans have some kind

of garden. If we each set aside a portion of our yards for plants

that provide habitat and food for our native pollinators, that

adds up to hundreds of thousands of acres. lf each of us makes

the choice not to use pesticides and herbicides, we can

enormously reduce the toxic runoff that pollutes our waterways

and soils. Then, if each of us makes a point of taking the idea a

bit beyond our own backyards, we can stretch our influence

further still.


For instance, in my town, a family began planting

daffodils in public places, offering them free to any

neighborhood that would help plant. Now, about 8,000 new

bulbs go in each year and the roads are bright with blossom in

spring. Another family decided to plant lilacs in public areas,

adding a hundred each year. A local conservationist joined in,

offering native red currant bushes (Ribes sanguineum) to

anybody who would plant them in appropriate sites. In just a

few years, the idea of creating public plantings has taken firm

hold. Volunteer groups make bee, bird, and butterfly gardens at

local schools and teach kids to observe the creatures who come

to feed. A larger pollinator garden has been installed at the

local library, and others will be made at the city hall, the

performing arts center, and even along the town’s roads.

Gardeners anywhere can make a program like this for

their own town. The best way to begin is with small projects

that are inexpensive and simple to maintain. Schools are a good

place to start, because teachers are always excited about projects

that will actively involve kids and help them to connect with

the natural world. A pollinator garden can be used as an

outdoor classroom for science and ecology classes. Usually, it’s

easy to get help and seed money from parent-teacher groups as

well to involve them in the planning and planting of a bee,

bird, and butterfly garden. Such outreach has a long arm, since

once people begin paying attention to the small creatures

around us, they are often willing to stop using pesticides.

If these public pollinator gardens teach people only one

thing, this should be it: Think before you spray. For so many

years, advertisers (and experts who ought to have known better)

urged us to rush out and buy poison spray the moment some

poor bug annoyed us. If we were inconvenienced by wasps, well,

zap them all dead. If ants got in your peonies, wipe them out

before they get somewhere worse.


Few people actually tried to get rid of honeybees, yet

bees and many other small pollinators are just as susceptible to

all-purpose bug sprays as their less desirable relatives. What’s

more, many commonly used pesticides will kill bees a long way

from your yard. Spray drift can carry toxins clear around the

block. Sprays that run into an active sprinkler can be carried

into the sewer. Downstream, those powerful toxins can kill fish

that certainly never did anything to anybody’s lawn.

lt’s comforting to assume that wind and water will

dilute whatever form of poison we use before it harms anything

unintentionally. However, we are not alone. Millions of home

gardeners are out there with us. When we find cause to spray,

they do too. The result is deadly. ln Washington State, there is

no longer a single stream that does not show traces of diazinone,

a common toxin found in lawn weed-and-feed products.

Diazinone is not only toxic to trout and salmon, but once in the

water supply, it also kills honeybees, which are vanishing faster

than beekeepers can replace them. Weakened by frequent

exposure to pesticides, they succumb to diseases that healthy

bees can usually resist.


We have no native honeybees here. Our native bees

are mainly solitary bees, like Mason bees, that nest alone rather

than in hives. Solitary bees do a fine job of pollinating but need

our active encouragement and a clean environment in order to

thrive in great numbers. Like the imported European honey

bees, our natives are decimated by even light contact with

pesticides. Even certain herbicides (weed killers) can kill both

native bees and European honeybees. Some ecological watch

groups estimate that the native bee population is only about 5%

of what it was two decades ago.

That means that in the past twenty years, we have

killed about 95% of our native pollinator bees. We didn’t mean

to, but that doesn’t alter the fact that they are gone. I t won’t be

as easy to undo the harm as it was to cause it. Luckily, if we

want to make amends, we can. First, we can stop using toxic

pesticides and herbicides. Next, we can seek organic or

ecologically benign solutions to disease and troubling insect

relationships. lf you aren’t sure what these might be or where to

find them, ask your local nursery. If they don’t know, find

another nursery that does. ln the meantime, call your local

Master Gardener Hotline (this is a terrific program supported by

Agricultural Extension Service offices in every county.) In

other words, let’s try a little counseling before we kill anything.

@1999 Ann Lovejoy for Log House Plants

Helpful resources:

Oregon State Beekeepers Association

American Beekeeping Federation

OSU Extension Service Master Gardeners