Friday, March 26, 2010

You hear a lot of buzz these days about honeybees, mostly about how poorly they’re faring. No specific cause has yet been found for this so-called “colony collapse disorder.”

I heard a lot of buzz today from the bees themselves. My Arnold’s Promise variety of witch hazel is in all its visual and aromatic glory. As I approached the plant to better drink in its sight and smell, it was all a-buzz with the frenzied flitting about of myriad honeybees moving from flower to flower.

It’s nice to know that at least some honeybees are happy – and I take some credit for their well-being. By planting showy flowers, for instance. We find them pretty; bees crave them as a source for the nectar and the pollen they need to survive. Early blossoms, such as those on witch hazel, are especially welcome to bees after a winter of having to draw on their stored reserves of food.

I’m also very careful to avoid using pesticides, especially those toxic to honeybees. And where pesticides are needed, I‘m careful to keep them on target and to apply them when bees are not active.


Honeybees are much more valuable for their pollination services than for the honey and beeswax we sneak from them. Many crops – virtually all those with showy flowers – need the pollination services of bees in order to set seed or make fruits.

I once kept bees, so can attest to the fact that they make very interesting pets. Their social organization rivals that of any other creature. (Humans are not even in this running.) Each bee knows and does his or her job. The hive’s sole queen leaves the hive but once in her life to get fertilized by males, after which the latter, their genitals ripped from their bodies, die. Guard bees protect the entrance from interlopers.

When the weather is nice, workers spend their days seeking out and gathering nectar and pollen from flowers. A worker, upon finding a good source of nectar and pollen, returns to the hive and does a dance that communicates to other workers the location of that bounty. This bee “language” is so evolved that different varieties of bees have different “dialects.” For a fascinating description of the experiments that led to the discovery of those “bee dances,” take a look at the book The Dancing Bees by Karl Von Frisch, who, in 1973, received the Nobel Prize for his work with bees.


Looking at those ecstatic bees on my witch hazel bush, it struck me that perhaps what I was looking at were not, in fact, honeybees. Honeybees are, after all, on the decline and they’re not the only bees on the block. In fact, honeybees weren’t even “on the block” a few hundred years ago because they’re not native to North America.

North America has plenty of wild bees, though, almost 4000 species for them! Our wild bees – including, for example, carpenter bees, orchard mason bees, and hornfaced bees -- are very efficient pollinators, going outside to work during weather in which honeybees remain huddled in their hives. These native bees get up earlier in spring and earlier each day, and don’t need the calm weather (wind less than 15 mph) and warm temperatures (greater than 55 degrees F) demanded by honeybees. Native bees also are more gentle than honeybees, rarely stinging. They don’t, however, make honey or beeswax.

Unfortunately, native bee populations are also on the decline these days, due mostly to habitat destruction and pesticide poisoning. Some people build special nestboxes for these helpful insects, which require nothing more than tubes in which to lay eggs, anything from bundles of straws to wooden blocks into which holes have been drilled.

Whatever I’m doing that keeps those bees on my witchhazel happy will have similar effect whether the bees are honeybees or native bees. Because some native bees nest in the ground, our gardening practices can influence their well-being. The website details the effects of a number of gardening practices on native bees. Tillage, for example, can be detrimental, as are the pesticides copper sulfate, sulfur, and rotenone. Maintaining wild habitats is also important to their survival.

I went back outside for a closer look at my happy bees. They were honeybees.


  1. Wonderfully informative post. I too see wild bees buzzing round the flowering trees here.

  2. I noticed that as soon as there are any flowers out (in our case, snowdrops), the honeybees come out for the nectar. I was amazed that there were honeybees out so early, but I think we have all the conditions here for them to thrive.