Oh, Bee-have

Our tiny pollinators are in danger—but your little piece of paradise can protect them. Ariel Felton asks a master gardener what the buzz is all about.

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Like many Savannahians, author Rhonda Fleming Hayes spends springtime in her garden, busily tending the beautiful blossoms. And she’s far from alone. According to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 2.5 million honeybee colonies in the United States are readying themselves for the blooming season at this very moment.

We often see bees as pests with painful stingers, but these tiny buzzers are responsible for an astounding amount of our groceries—about $200 billion a year. And, since 2006, their decline has been putting our food supply in peril.

I sat down with Hayes, the author of Pollinator Friendly Gardening, to learn how something so small can make a huge difference.

Savannah magazine: How did you first become interested in bees and other pollinators?

Rhonda Fleming Hayes: I was sitting in my garden and started thinking, “Gosh! The kids are going to college soon. They’re leaving and I’ve been doing all this cooking from my garden—who am I going to feed now?”

Then I heard this noise—it was a bee. That got me thinking about the wild things working in my garden. I started experimenting and working toward enhancing the wildlife habitat for them.

Now I have very little lawn and lots of pollinator plants. It’s like my own living laboratory. In the summertime, you can literally hear my yard. I love knowing that all sorts of pollinators are out there.

Aren’t you scared of getting stung?

I did all the photos for my book—I was up very close to these bees for a couple of years—and I was never stung once. Bees are usually so absorbed in what they’re doing. Unless they feel threatened, they aren’t going to sting you. Obviously people who are really allergic to bees shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.

Why did you write your book?

I wanted to make the scientific material on pollinator life cycles and behaviors accessible to the everyday gardener. Many non-scientists want to make simple but meaningful changes in their gardens.

Are bees the most important pollinators?

In our food system, bees are the most important because they’re the most efficient pollinators. We depend on them to pollinate crops. Down here in the South, they’re responsible for citrus, tomatoes, strawberries and so much more. Bees are responsible for every third bite of food you take.

Around 2006, some beekeepers noticed colonies disappearing. Others started seeing a lot of bees dead around the edges of the hives.

Bees go through losses in winter—about 10 percent of their hives—but these new losses were more like 33 percent. It’s called colony collapse disorder, and it’s a real cause for alarm. It threatens our food source and the billion-dollar beekeeping and crop-pollinating industries.

Why is this happening?

One reason is habitat loss. Millions of acres of habitats disappear every year due to development, farming and other practices.

Another reason is pesticide use. Neoni-cotinoids are a class of pesticides that we started using about the same time all the bees started disappearing. These are systemic pesticides, meaning they don’t just sit on the leaves. Instead, they’re taken up and become part of the plant. When bees gather nectar and pollen, take it back to their young and make honey out of it, the pesticides get into the hive.

The USDA classified neonicotinoids as nonlethal, but sub-lethal, meaning they confuse bees. When they get back to the hive, the bees are disoriented. They can’t do the famous “wiggle dance,” a GPS pattern that tells other bees where the good flowers are. This is the main suspect in the declining number of bees.

And if colony collapse continues, what effect will that have on us?

We could notice food shortages and higher prices. Wheat and corn are pollinated by wind, so we’d still have those, but all the colorful and delicious things, like cherries, watermelons, blueberries—those we would start to miss.

Is anything being done to stop the decline of bees?

We’ve started to manage building habitats for native bees and managing what they pollinate. Lots of places are using greenhouses with hydroponic tomatoes, which they pollinate with bumblebees.

What can Savannah gardeners do to help?

If everyone had a plot out front, collectively we could make up for a lot of habitat loss. But first, the mindset around bees has to change. Once you get over your fear, they’re really kind of cute.

And what should we be planting in our bee-friendly gardens?

More flowers! In Savannah, we see a lot of formal landscaping, which involves evergreen foliage. But we have the opportunity to plant flowers that will attract bees and give them what they need. Bees like flowers that are already popular down here, like camellias and azaleas. Trees and shrubs provide a high number of flowers, which can really help.

You can walk around the neighborhoods or a botanical garden to see what the bees are visiting, or look for bee symbols marking certain plants at the nursery.

Plant something that blooms for a long time, or build up a sequence of blooms. Cheap and cheerful annuals are great because they bloom all season.

Think perennials like salvia, goldenrod, flag irises and sunflowers; shrubs like azaleas, blueberries and white holly; and trees like tupelos, dogwoods, tulip poplars and citrus.

What’s the secret to a garden that’s good for both bees and humans?

Design. When I suggest planting more flowers, people worry that their yards will look chaotic or even perhaps eccentric.

To keep it pretty, place short plants in front and tall plants in back. Weed often and make sure plants don’t flop over the walkway. Use crisp lines to frame wispier or more naturalistic plantings.

Reduce your lawn, but allow some to remain. It gives the eye a place to rest and calms the landscape. A bench or fountain provides a focal point and shows that the landscape is being maintained. These gestures are called “cues to care.”

A small sign mentioning your bee-conservation efforts can allay neighbors’ fears and educate at the same time. Make sure to smile and talk to passersby.

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