Monday, February 22, 2010

A Bee Or Not A Bee

Don't wear perfume in the garden - unless you want to be pollinated by bees.
~Anne Raver

WooHoo! It feels like spring and the bees are flying! We've had sunny days in the upper 50's all week.  Being a beekeeper, I’d be remiss not to take this opportunity to point out that bees are not bad. Bees of all kinds are beneficial insects and they pollinate the plants that grow our food!

Honey bees not only give us healthy honey and natural wax, they pollinate loads of crops that produce the foods we eat. Without honey bees we’d see a huge reduction (and some sources claim elimination) of many of our fruit, nut and vegetable crops. Likewise bumble bees (used in commercial greenhouse pollination), leaf cutter bees (which are responsible for the circles cut out of your rose leaves for their nest materials), ground nesting bees, mason bees (also commercially used for crop pollination) and the bee fly are pollination pros.

Wasps, hornets and yellow jackets are pollinators and voracious bug eaters, chowing down on grubs, caterpillars and aphids, so while they are to be respected for their defensive stinging abilities they are not to be exterminated at all costs. If they are starting a nest that is above your front door, you may want to scrape it off while it’s still tiny, prompting them to build elsewhere, but if it’s on an out-building or garage that’s not too near people traffic you may consider leaving it for the benefit they bring. These are good bugs that help us keep the bad bugs at a manageable level all the while pollinating too.

You may also see the Syrphid fly, which looks a lot like a bee. Their larvae are insect predators and the adults pollinate as they visit flowering plants.

Since there are so many types of ‘bees’ and I often come across people who are confused as to which are the much loved honey bees, I’m including these photos, taken in my garden to help identify the visual differences in the flies, bees and yellow jackets that may visit your gardens.

My honey bees, aren't they beautiful?

Bumble bee loaded with pollen on mullen and chive blossoms

A Syrphid fly

A yellow jacket on a rhododendron

A managed honey bee hive and a paper hornet nest

Make note of the difference between honey bee hives and wasp nests. Honey bees in the wild will not make a paper ball style nest like the hornets or wasps. They will move into an empty cavity, like a hollow tree or the space in a wall.

If you are allergic to bee or wasp venom, even to the point of serious reaction, I still urge you to have an informed respect for these insects. The allergic person should always keep an Epi-pen with them during the warm months when honey bees and wasps are flying. Your doctor can write you a prescription for it. Understand, honey bees are not aggressive but simply defensive and will not attack unless they feel threatened. I work with my bees wearing no gloves and rarely get stung. Africanized bees in the warmer southern regions are a different matter all together. If you live there and are allergic you should keep an Epi-pen with you at all times. Africanized bees have a heightened sense of defensiveness and will defend for a much further distance from the nest than the calmer European honey bees used for managed beekeeping in the USA and worldwide. I could go on and on about honey bees, but that would digress from this post, so if any readers want more information about gentle honey bees, please leave a comment. If you are bee venom allergic there is hope of cure. Api-therapy uses bee venom to cure allergic reactions to bee stings and claims to be successful in treating many other serious ailments. I know a beekeeper that after years of not being allergic, became allergic. After treatments he can safely keep bees again, without a dangerous reaction.

If you are interested in pollinators, there is a fantastic website that goes beyond the bees. At you can find loads of information and an awesome eco-regional planting guide based on your zip code. This will tell you what plants to plant in your garden to attract beneficial insects and birds based on your locale in the USA. For my readers in the UK and elsewhere in the world, if you have a site like this I’d love to know about it! Please drop me a line in comments.

If you want info about other garden bugs in our North American gardens, an extensive resource to identify good and bad bugs of all kinds is Whitney Cranshaw’s Garden Insects of North America. It has a pollinator section and is full of wonderful color photographs and descriptions for easy identification. You may just find yourselves squashing less bugs and letting them do their job, making your life easier in the garden. And by all means, don’t buy that chemical/petroleum based insecticide/pesticide! Insecticides/pesticides kill honey bees too! Please BEE careful!! Turn to organic control methods, use organic sprays only when absolutely necessary and use them at dusk when bees and birds are not flying. Even some of the organic ingredients can kill a bee if it gets sprayed or is rummaging around on flowers that are still wet with spray. Your local beekeeper and bees will THANK YOU!

This is a post on bees, but I must mention our feathered friends too! Many birds, even hummingbirds help pollinate and eat lots of bugs, so put out those feeders and keep ‘em full to attract birds to your garden. Then have a heart to heart with your kitties that the birds are off limits.

Enjoy your summer and look around, you may just be blessed with a honey bee in your blossoms!

In bloom in my garden today: Daffodils, Daphne, Cyclamen coum, Galanthus elwesii (snow drops), crocus, primrose (double English), Sarcococca confusa, hellebore

Photos courtesy of Pat Chissus


Tracy Zhu said...

Hi Joan -

I was just at Simon's blog and saw your message to me. Thanks for the heads up about commenting, and I'd love to hear your fix. Either here, or if you're comfortable e-mailing me I'm at

Good post, and a reminder I need to get back to blogging.

Tracy Zhu

Tracy Zhu said...

Actually, I just figured it out, but thanks again for tracking me down. By the way, HKG is one of my favorite cities. If you gardened while you were there it must have been interesting.

Joan said...

Hi Tracy! Glad you got it before I could get to you!

Yes, HK was a great adventure but I was in jr hi so wasn't into gardening yet, but my mom did have some pots on our terrace. As you know not much gardening land there!
If I gardened there, you gotta know I'd be loving all the tropicals! My how it must have changed after the Govt changeover. Some day I'd love to visit again.

Thanks for visiting!

Shari B. (FitFeat) said...

Joan, your posts are always so educational and have such important 'public service' messages. I love this one!

It's sad to hear in the news how such an important being is diminishing and people don't realize how much we need them! Your post is very eye-opening and I hope this touches a lot of readers.

I'm craving some honey all of a sudden. ;) Gotta keep my local beekeepers in business!

Joan said...

Hi Shari,
Thanks and I'm glad you liked the post. I'm especially glad you like honey and buy local. Definately if you can't get honey from a local beekeeper, be sure what you buy is honey from US or Canada sources. The US law says the label must indicate the source of origin but this is not always enforced. The US and Canada have stricter rules for purity. With imported honey you truly don't know what you are getting, alot of tainted product has been siezed at ports. If you have a local beekeeper also ask if his/her honey is from his/her own hives. Many beekeepers buy imported honey in big barrels and repackage to resell. I've seen beekeepers sell purchased/repackaged honey at Farmer's markets. Perfectly legal but deceptive I think. It's tricky...we should definately know the beekeeper.

Shari B. (FitFeat) said...

WOW, I am way behind at getting back to read replies to comments! :)

OK, now that really IS tricky that they would repackage honey. Hmmm, I'll have to do some further checking on mine to be sure it really IS from Colorado! Thanks for the info!

Cindy said...

Hi Joan...loved your post on bees. My husband learned beekeeping as a teenager and he still has a heart for them. he's taught us all a lot and given us an appreciation for them. whenever a neighbor has a pesky hive he tries to help without destroying it..but sadly most of them call pest control before he gets there. so sad.

where we live there are bees everywhere and even though many die (we find a lot of dead bees in our yard) I am hopeful they will start to replenish.

We have gallons of raw honey in the garage. MMM (but it's BLACK so I am always leery about it but I know it's good)

great information and inspiring too.

Joan said...

Hi Cindy...I'm so glad your husband trys to help neighbors with bees, maybe the more the word is spread the less spraying will happen...yes it is sad when they are mistaken for wasps etc. Their numbers are in such decline.

Your black honey is probably buckwheat honey. It is the blackest. Honey color is determined by flower source not age or quality. Buckwheat honey is a bit stronger in taste I think but some people prefer it. Give it a try...I think honey is low GI too. It's not gone bad...but if honey is old or stored in wrong temps it could crystallize a bit, just needs to be warmed (not hot or you destroy enzymes) to dissolve the crystals if you don't want them. The only time I've seen honey go 'bad' is in the hive when the bees didn't finish it's production and still contains too much water. Then it ferments and you can really smell it.

Your gallons are worth gold now. I just read an article that US honey production is so low, due to bee deaths, that the price will rise and we'll have to import more than ever, probably as soon as next year. That's not good as imported honey can have questionable qualities.

Thanks for visiting! Cheers!

Cindy said...

oh that is such great info on our honey...Hubs swears by it...and it tastes good but the black freaks me out a bit. we have a 5 gal jug I think.

we love bees! Hubs wanted to find a business helping farmers and local properties host bee hives and he could maintain them.

I think that would be a cool idea for sure!

I got your message about my rose prune post...I forgot about it! I'll put my thoughts together and get one up! :)

Joan said...

Hi Cindy,
Hubs may want to attend your local bee club meetings, every county has a bee club it seems, where he may find more info on where he can keep his bees if he doesn't want them in your yard. At one time I considered keeping a hive at the nearby pea patch, but chickened out when I thought of potential problems that could arise. There are 2 good beekeeping magazines he may want to check out too...Bee Culture and/or American Bee Journal. Often there are articles with tips and examples of 'pollination contracts' if he wants to move his hives to various farms. If he doesn't want to invest in the hives, bee clubs are always looking for beekeepers to maintain the club's apiary (a collection of hives belonging to and paid for by the club). Maybe he could move/maintain some of the club's apiary hives at different farm locations? Lots of workable ideas. Good luck!