Archive for Thursday, July 5, 2007

The Green Thumb

July 5, 2007

Weeding, deadheading and planting in our gardens almost always bring us into contact with bees. My grandsons usually leave the area, and I am just in front of them. Should we be afraid, leave the area, pursue other interests? Maybe not.

I asked this question of Tim Tucker, past president of the Kansas Honey Producers Association and editor of its newsletter. The answer is simple: You are probably in no danger, and the reason is just as simple.

No other event takes place so many times a day in our gardens and fields, yielding a billion untold miracles upon which we so deeply depend and yet barely notice. We seldom think about how reliant we are upon the pollinators around us, who work so diligently and tirelessly to provide us with fruits, vegetables and flowers through their acts of pollination. It has been said that about a third of our food is provided through the work of the honeybee.

The honeybee was not a native of our Americas and was brought here by early settlers. Their transport across the seas was of no small importance to these people in setting up their gardens and orchards to ensure survival. They understood the need for good fruit and depended upon the honeybee to works its magic and provide a crop of golden honey as an added benefit. In today's hyper-mart world, it is easy to forget about how important these little insects are to our accessing high-quality and yet relatively inexpensive food.

Sometimes our only thought of honeybees is our memory of a sting we received during a brief encounter. We sometimes think of bees as mean or aggressive after reading of reports of attacks by African honeybees. But most of our honeybees here in Kansas are now the European honeybees cared for by beekeepers, and they tend to display what we beekeepers call "defensive behavior." Bred and maintained for their well-mannered behavior, these bees will rarely sting or attack unless they are being deprived from performing their duties of feeding and providing for the colony.

Worker bees are all female bees, and they are capable of stinging in defense of the colony or themselves. They are in the last stage of their life and are busy collecting at a pace that leaves them no time for interruption. This particular time of year, a honeybee will work herself to death in a few weeks and collect only a teaspoon of pollen and nectar while visiting thousands of flowers in her labors. In so doing she enables the pear and apple to develop a package for the many seeds set during her visit, creating a summer treat for our tables. She also will provide for next year's bloom of flowers that depend upon her hairy body transporting their pollen to others in kind.

So take a moment the next time you are graced by the visit to a flower in your garden to observe and appreciate the value of the honeybee and be not alarmed or afraid that there's a bee around. Single foraging bees are almost never a problem. It's best to leave swarms of bees alone and respect colonies of bees whether they are in bee boxes or wild swarms that have settled into a building or tree cavity. There they have something to defend, and you may leave with a bad encounter resulting in less-than-fond memories of these amazingly interesting creatures.

For more information, Tim can be reached at tuckerb@hit.net.

-- Stan Ring is the horticulture program assistant at K-State Research and Extension -- Douglas County. He can be reached at 843-7058 or Sring1@oznet.ksu.edu.

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