It’s that most wonderful time of the year, the time when we get to spend a month celebrating the critters who bring us an important chunk of our food supply, beautiful blooms and thriving plants of all kinds and a balanced ecosystem, known as the pollinators. Yep, I’m talking about all of them, not just the honeybees with whom we are so familiar.
I am a beekeeper and part of a group of friends called the BeeShees (Shes who keep bees) that have been keeping bees together for about 10 years. We include Andi Beyer, Denise Champagne, my daughter Ramsey Cook and myself. We are often asked to talk to groups about beekeeping and we like to say that honeybees are the “panda bears” of the pollinator world. They are cute and nonaggressive and we like them because they give us honey. They are sort of the indicator species for trouble among the pollinator population because we manage bees like livestock and therefore pay attention to them in ways we cannot with wild species.
But, pollinators include lots of different insects and animals. There are numerous types of bees that pollinate, including various solitary bees and bumblebees. Certain species of wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, mosquitoes and beetles are pollinators, too. There are a number of animals around the world that act as pollinators, the most commonly recognized being hummingbirds and bats.
Pollinators are responsible for facilitating the transfer of pollen grains from the male anther to the female stigma of a flower. This process is critical to most plants in their ability to reproduce. In the case of many plants, it is the process that allows them to produce seeds and fruits, some of which are critical parts of our food supply, to the tune of one out of every three bites we take.
Honeybees have become particularly important to that process thanks to our predominantly monocultural agriculture system. We plant acres and acres of a single crop, which wipes out the potential habitat pollinators need to naturally occur, so the transport of beehives all across the country is critical to the proper pollination of produce from citrus fruits in Florida to almond groves in California, to cranberry bogs and blueberry bushes in New England, to the cotton fields and peach orchards of Georgia. And that’s just to name a few.
We home gardeners and smaller scale farmers have a better chance of native pollinators helping us out, but because they are struggling to survive, it can sometimes help to have a beehive or two in our yard or nearby to augment the native varieties. Notice I distinguish honeybees from native species, because honeybees did not exist in North America until they were introduced from Europe by the early settlers. There was an American stingless bee the Aztecs kept that produced honey, but European bees were brought over by the colonists.
Nowadays, the honeybees most commonly kept in the United States are of either Italian or Russian descent, with Italians being recognized as the gentlest variety while Russians tend to be the heavier honey producers. We are Italian lovers and particularly enjoy their generally calm demeanor while fishing through a packed hive in search of the queen on a hot summer afternoon. We BeeShees are currently managing 23 hives and are excited to report that this is considered to be a really strong year for bees in Georgia.
Pollinators are critical to our ecosystem and we are happy to support and celebrate them in numerous ways this month. We are also celebrating the renewal of our Bee City USA designation for the City of Rome! This means that we are recognized for meeting the criteria of a town that is supporting bees and other pollinators, and reflects a commitment by both the city and the county to work to improve their use of chemicals that can be harmful and to promote the safety of these important members of our community. There are lots of ways that you can help keep your yard pollinator-friendly, too.
Bees and other pollinator populations are being weakened by exposure to pesticides and herbicides, so try to cut back on how you use them in managing your yard. If a product is designed to kill a certain type of insect, it will likely kill others, and will at best be harmful to the beneficial bugs that come in contact with it. Herbicides can also be harmful to beneficial bugs. For example, recent research shows that RoundUp exposure damages the brain of bees to the point that they can forget how to forage or how to find their way back to their hive.
You can also provide food supply for pollinators by allowing blooming weeds to grow in your yard and planting pollinator-friendly plants in your flower beds. Access to food sources is a problem for pollinators in our tradition of maintaining perfectly manicured lawns. Go a little more natural and you are automatically supporting bees and other beneficials.
Lastly, come out to our pollinator month events and learn all you can about these wonderful citizens! We have a calendar of fun activities planned. You can find that information on our Bee City USA, Rome Facebook page or stop in at the Rome-Floyd County ECO Center to get the details. First up this week is the Rome Floyd Beekeepers Association’s monthly meeting on June 6 at 6 p.m. at the ECO Center featuring special guest Phyllis Stiles, the founder of the Bee City USA and Bee Campus USA organization that supports the protection and promotion of pollinators across the country. There is much to learn and much to celebrate this month, and we hope to see you. Bee there or bee square, because hexagons are the only cool shape. Sorry, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get in a few bee puns.