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State of Beeing

Despite their reputation as purveyors of nasty little stings, nature's pollinators provide a valuable service for farmers and gardeners.

May 25, 1996|MARESA ARCHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Barely bigger than a raisin, bees can strike terror in the hardiest adults, sending them into a duck-and-weave dance to elude the little insects.

Granted, a sting is an unpleasant sensation that makes many of us disdainful of bees. Plants, on the other hand, will do almost anything to attract bees, such as blooming in the insects' favorite colors and forming a shape to entice the pollinators.

Bees are one of nature's most important pollinators. For some plants, a bee visitation is a matter of life or death. Squashes, such as pumpkin, cannot form fruit unless bee-pollinated.

Though farmers have long known they need bees for healthy crops, the average backyard gardener is just learning how to bee appreciative.

"There really is a new interest in bees," said Jaci Siehl of Silverado Honey Farm. "People getting into organic gardening, for instance, are finding out they need their plants pollinated, and bees do it most efficiently."

There are nearly 5,000 described species of native bees in the continental United States. When it comes to pollination, not all little buzzers are created equal. There are bees that go to only one type of plant and make their entire living from that one species.

"That's why honeybees became so popular. They have long-lived colonies, and for the most part they try to pollinate everything in sight the whole year round," said Stephen L. Buchmann, bee expert and adjunct professor at the University of Arizona, Tucson. He is also the co-author of a new book, "The Forgotten Pollinators," due out in early July..

Apis mellifera, the honeybee most of us are familiar with and which is most popular with beekeepers, is actually an immigrant from Europe. The Spanish brought the bees first into the Caribbean, then into Mexico City, where they were moved northward by the Franciscan missionaries.

"They were introduced purposely because at the time they had to use beeswax for candles according to the laws of the Catholic Church. At the time, honeybees were thought to be pure and have virgin births. But it isn't true; they have pretty kinky sex miles in the air," Buchmann said.

Besides honeybees, there are a variety of solitary bees collectively referred to as mason (Osmia species) and leaf-cutter bees (Megachilie species). One native species, the blue orchard bee (O. lingnaria), a lovely gunmetal blue, is excellent for pollinating cherry, plum and apple trees.

Even plants that self-fertilize produce larger, more flavorful and more abundant fruit when bee pollinated.

Bumblebees (Bombus species) land on a flower, hold on tight and start a high-intensity "buzz" that shakes the pollen from the plant onto the bee's fuzzy body. "The buzzing is so intense that if they didn't hold on tight with their mandibles they would be shaken off," Buchmann said.

Popular backyard garden crops such as tomatoes, eggplant, chili peppers and blueberries are all buzz pollinated.

For whatever reason, honeybees cannot buzz pollinate, Buchmann said. "This makes the native bees that can all the more important."

Breeding bumblebees has become a $30-million industry in Europe. "It used to be that they had workers hand-pollinating the plants in the greenhouse, which was very costly and time consuming. Bees are much more efficient, and they don't have to be paid," Buchmann said.

So no problem here, you might think. Aren't there plenty of bees flying about?

In fact, the honeybee, one of the most prolific pollinators, is on an alarming decline that scientists believe is being caused by killer mites.

Two types of mites have infiltrated bee colonies in Orange County as well as the Western United States. The mites started showing up in the mid-'80s and have wreaked havoc on the bee population, Buchmann said.

"The first one, tracheal mite (Acarapis woodsi) is tiny and basically lives inside the breathing tube of the bees," he said. "They're not direct killers but cause enough damage to weaken the colony, leaving it in a vulnerable state."

The other, more dangerous mite is one of the world's largest, called a Varroa mite (Varroa jacobsoni). This lethal mite hitches a ride on an unsuspecting bee, then sucks the blood of the larvae, killing the next generation of bees.

Many county beekeepers, including Siehl, have lost colonies and profits to the Varroa mite. She treats her hives twice a year with a general antibiotic and a miticide. The treatment lasts 45 days, during which there is no honey collected.

At Cal State Fullerton, Eugene Jones, a bee pollination expert, has lost several of his hives to the mites. "Once the hive is weakened, any other adversity like a cold shock in winter will make a hive unable to survive," Jones said.

Another threat to local bees are Africanized honeybees (Apis mellifera scupellata). They have not reached Orange County, with the closest sighting along the north shore of the Salton Sea, according to Cynthia Ross of Orange County Vector Control, who specializes in the invading bee.

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