My left foot is still encased in a fiberglass cast. April has been magnificent so far and I am determined to get outside to play in the garden. I stump around for awhile, then flop into the outdoor recliner and lean back. This takes the weight off my foot and tilts me toward the sky, where I gaze at the blooming maple tree. All those brilliant yellow-green tassels are flowers. What you can’t tell from looking at this photo is that the canopy of the tree is gently humming. It’s a low soft sound, which might be mistaken for something else. Lying on my back, listening, my eyes focus and then I can see the tiny shapes silhouetted–lots and lots of insects. They’re hover flies, and a few honeybees.
My honey bees have been quite active on these warm days, and male rufous hummingbirds zing through the garden as they establish territories. Butterflies and moths are starting to appear. Pollinators have been much on my mind since someone at work mentioned a website where you can submit photos of bumblebees for identification. It’s called bumblebeewatch.org. While checking that out, I visited the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation where I learned about the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. Why not? I registered my garden, since it appears to be providing lots of pollinator habitat right now.
The arrival of honeybees in my life six years ago has been an experience in witnessing how connected all things are. As a beekeeper, I still have much to learn. They are alien and mysterious, but I’ve fallen in love with them anyway. All I have to do is provide flowers and water in the summer, and some sugar candy in winter. The hive is located in a place that receives morning sun, afternoon shade, and is somewhat sheltered from the wind. It’s tucked out of travel paths, but near enough that I can keep an eye on it. Henry, my big gray cat, spends hot afternoons in the shade behind the hive. My approach to beekeeping is pretty hands off. I figure they know what they’re doing better than I do. I don’t have any particular need to open the hive and look for the queen or see how much brood there is. Knowing how chemically sensitive honeybees and other beneficial insects are, I garden as organically as possible. By creating healthy soil and choosing climate-adapted plants, I rarely have problems that require chemical intervention. Diatomaceous earth takes care of the dreaded earwigs that devour my zinnia seedlings. Slugs are trapped with beer and aphids can be sprayed away with the water hose.
People who don’t keep bees can still do a lot to help pollinators. Avoid monoculture, both in your own outdoor environment and in your food choices. Plant a diversity of shrubs and flowers (including natives), minimize lawns, let some of the vegetation be wild and less-tended. Avoid pesticides and other garden chemicals. Do your homework. If you purchase plants from nurseries, make sure they are grown without the use of neonicotinoids. These are a group of systemic insecticides which remain in plant tissues, including pollen. Very bad for bees. Neonicotinoids are also sometimes used on hay. There have been reports of composted horse manure containing neonic residue, which contaminates gardens. (See, everything is connected!) Pollinators require water. I’ve seen bees landing on plants after I’ve turned off the sprinkler. They will also drink at puddles, bird baths, and swimming pools.
Lying there on my back listening to the maple tree hum, I am able to put aside all these concerns and worries about the messed-up world. I will do all I can in my small way to help these creatures thrive. But it is also necessary to marvel at the sheer wonder of flowering plants and pollen and how plant success is made possible by flying insects. (And birds and bats.) Amazement is a counterbalance to the uncomfortable knowledge of just how fragile the web of life is. Which leads me to the most important thing I have learned from bees so far…when I squat down in front of the hive and watch them coming and going, each of them doing her job, I know that their business has nothing to do with me at all. Or any other human, or any of our works. How marvelous to not be as important as I think I am.