The Bee (and the Backyard Garden)


Picture this. It’s my birthday. I’m at a fancy schmantzy spa swimming in a big blue pool filled with natural mineral springs. Back and forth. It’s nice. But I’ve chosen to spend this birthday alone, and at that moment I’m revisiting that decision, possibly regretting it just a teeny bit. And that’s when I see the bee.
You know how it happens. Bees and flies and moths and bugs end up on the surface of pools with chlorine in them and that’s really the end of their lives. You know it’s true. So it was suddenly a bit of a bright spot to be able redirect my teeny naggy feeling into helping this little stuck bee. I slipped off my paddleboard (yes, I was paddleboarding; it was my birthday), and slipped it underneath the stranded creature and left her safely on the side of the pool to dry.* I hoped. I also hoped it wasn’t too late. She was stunned, but I figured she could recuperate. She was just weighted down. So I continued my swim back and forth across the pool in laps, now, and each time checked in on her to see how she was doing. Hard to tell. After a few laps I began to worry that perhaps I should move her more into the sun and less in harm’s way. What if someone stepped on her? Prepared to do this I arrived once again at pool’s edge, and at that very moment, happily, she lifted off and flew off into the air, to continue her way. I want to say merry way, but given the state of the bee these days, I’m no longer sure it’s that merry.

Probably a lot of you watched the CBS piece on the plight of bees. If not, you’ve by now surely been exposed to a variety of theories about what is happening to them, as in, they are disappearing, or dying or both. And first it was the Cellphone Theory (they are disoriented by the waves and can’t find their way back to their hives); now it’s the Virus Theory (and I guess there might be something to that). But how about this. (Duh.) They are stressed out of their little bee minds because commercial beekeepers working for agribusiness are dragging them around the country on flatbed trucks carting them here and there and wherever they are “needed” to keep these conglomerate megafarms in business with no regard whatsoever for what that might actually be DOING to them, poor things. Like compromising their immune systems?? Or throwing them into unfamiliar environments, far from home where they don’t even know where to find water??? Combined with the ongoing use of pesticides and insecticides perhaps the poor little creatures are saying to us, in their disappearance, “I can’t do this anymore.” So the concept of saving one little stranded bee in a pool is about as far from their unconsciousness minds as one could get. And it’s nothing “personal”; it’s “just business.” As if the fate of the honeybee had nothing to do with us and our lives. Or that we should even care.

Which brings up the obvious. We have to start growing our own food. As in, in our back yards. And, we have to, have to, have to be planting flowers and trees and herbs that attract bees and that nurture them. And we have to LEAVE THEM ALONE and let them do their marvelous bee thing. And let them swarm where and when they want to. And protect them. We have to stop using pesticides and all the garbage we put into the environment that is making them sick and probably mutating the heck out of billions of years of natural programming and let them be. Let bees be is my basic message. Maybe someone would like to come up with a bumper sticker. Be my guest.

My friend Jack keeps bees. He’s been keeping bees for 32 years.

He and his wife sell wonderful local honey at the Saturday morning farmers market. I have bought a lot of honey from Jack. I don’t know why. He finally asked me one Saturday, “Uh, how much honey do you HAVE?” I’m not sure. But a bunch of very large jars. It is the only food which keeps. As in forever. Fancy that.

So I asked Jack, “What about the bees? Are you noticing colonies collapsing?”
He’s not. (And this is apparently a common response among organic beekeepers.) Jack does not cart his bees all over creation. They stay right around here. He did notice that some hives were swarming a little late in the season, but he caught them and fed them and they did fine. Jack says that strong colonies going into winter make strong colonies in spring. Weak colonies going into winter “probably won’t make it.” I asked him about my stand on backyard gardening. He says, “You won’t get rid of agribusiness, because there would not be enough food. But, yes, if people started growing and buying locally it would allow bees to stay in the area, not be moved around, and it would not only be better for the bees, it’s better for the economy.” It’s also better for the environment because we wouldn’t have as many large trucks on our highways trucking food in, using up fuel and spewing fumes on our roads and into our air. The list goes on. Jack says if more people would buy from local growers (either at farmers markets or by asking their local stores to supply fresh local produce, which, thankfully, is a growing trend) more people would grow food locally because they would see there is a market for it. And all these minor shifts would support the honeybee populations. Your choices make a difference.

And get this! Jack says that if we grew more of our own food it would not only help the honeybees, it would support the native bees (there are native bees??) who also help pollinate our food. And I love this part. They are solitary bees (which might be why we never hear about them). They don’t build big colonies like the honeybee (who were brought to this land from Europe on a ship, you know). So it is much more difficult to collect and manipulate this other class of bee. Jack says that, worst case scenario, if the honeybee did get wiped out (God forbid) due to our ignorant and abusive treatment of them, and we were dependent on the native bees, they would have to set aside tracts of land for them, a safe habitat that would attract them, and plant things they liked and we’d be eating that. Because, again, these bees can’t be roped in like the immigrant honeybees from Europe. Wouldn’t that be an amazing trick of nature?

So back to simple practicalities, here’s what you can do:

1. Buy locally grown veges and fruits. (This is no “sacrifice.” This is a delicious treat that your body will thank you for.)

2. Grow your own. At very very least, start an herb garden. And isn’t this
convenient? Jack says bees LOVE all the herbs. They love rosemary, sage, thyme, lavender, mint and basil! Again, by doing this, you not only get good karma by helping out the happy bees; you benefit enormously for having fresh herbs at your fingertips a good part of the year. There’s no comparison. Once you start this practice you will wonder why you never did this before. [Thanks to my lovely friend Amy in Arizona who taught me to expand my herb repertoire.]

3. Plant flowers and fruit trees that the bees love. (And here is a special secret. Plant something like Texas sage, or bottlebrush, and when the purple (or red) flowers come into bloom go out early in the morning, pre-traffic, if you know what I mean, and just stand very quietly next to the bush and LISTEN. You will be completely enchanted. Really.)

4. Do NOT use pesticides. Just don’t. It’s bad bad bad for the environment–your environment. Don’t soil your nest.

5. Teach your children to love and respect bees. For the most part, if you don’t
bother them, they won’t bother you. Jack the beekeeper says that bees working the garden are not going to sting you or be aggressive if you leave them alone. It’s getting near their hives that might make them cranky or defensive.

*All honeybees in the garden are girls. The boys do one thing and one thing
only: they mate with the queen. That’s it, folks.

11 Responses to “The Bee (and the Backyard Garden)”

  1. Thanks for an interesting and informative story on the bees!

  2. Happy Birthday!!!!

    You didn’t tell me.

    Rinaldo told me that at his organic farm in Ojai, the commercial bees are gone, but the native bees are undiminished. That seems to coincide with what you found. Thank you for the this post.

  3. Thanks, David! It was last year’s birthday! Yes, I keep hearing that the smaller organic
    beekeepers are doing much better, though an apiary expert at UC Davis says he’s heard that folks in both camps are having some troubles. Jack said it took him a long time to learn how to MOVE bees, so I’m encouraging him to write a guest blog about how to move bees
    if you have to. But I’m never going to advocate for moving them long distances. It’s
    not natural for them and they pay a big price. (And now so are we, apparently.) We have to start giving them the respect they deserve and not treating them like some commodity.
    It’s so anthropocentric.

  4. that’s a pretty enlightening read! i never knew that bees were in the brink of extinction and that our cellphone use is more or less culprits.

    I guess there’s nothing to lose when we decide to plot our own plants and flowers in our backyard.

  5. Rory, the cellphone theory was something some scientists came up with in Europe. I think the notion has largely been rejected now. But it could possibly be one more factor. Brink of extinction: strong words.
    But it could happen. There is a quote attributed to Einstein that if the bee population were wiped out mankind would have four years left on the planet due to food loss. This quote came out of the mouth of none other than Bill Maher. Deeper investigation does not find Einstein actually saying this. The entire subject deserves a book that would lead to humane treatment of the poor honeybee.

  6. Sure would love it if everything could be organic and that I could afford to buy it! I do my share and have taught my 3 children and am now indoctorating my grandchildren. Mary

  7. How wonderful, Mary! Three generations surely constitutes a goodly direction!

  8. Kathryn,

    Happy belated birthday and nice article on the bees. And thank you for lending your voice to the Grow Your Own idea. Hopefully it will become a roar.

  9. This post was from Anne, which I inadvertently deleted when the comment turned bright red and I didn’t know what else to do. (WP mystery!) Here it is. (Sorry, Anne!):

    What a wonderful post! I too, rescue bugs from swimming pools (on the rare occasion that I am in one, though coincidentally I was swimming last month at a motel in Sedona…)

    And oh, YES! local produce, farmers’ markets… just today there were Haas avocados at 88 cents each at the big box grocery store. I asked the produce guy about it (we were chatting) and he said, “its that time of year.” Exactly!

    Best regards, Anne

  10. wow! kathryn! you’re prolific! and sensitive and heartfelt and inspirational. loved this story. love bees;) thanks for sharing this.

  11. Welcome, Moira! Thank you so much for the lengthy visit and the very kind words! Kathryn xoxo

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