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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Gardeners are not the only ones who work in gardens. Bees are a vital part of making a garden grow. Steve Curwood visits with Living on Earth's new garden expert Michael Weishan to talk about importance of these busy workers. Weishan will be an occasional contributor to Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. And I'm standing in front of one, two, three, four, five, six different beehives here, in Southboro, Massachusetts, the home of Michael Weishan, who is editor-in-chief of the journal, "Traditional Gardening," and Living on Earth's garden expert. Michael, why do you have all these bees here?

WEISHAN: Well, primarily, other than the fact that I really enjoy harvesting the honey, their primary purpose is to serve as pollinators for the garden and for the orchard. The garden production is 5 times what it was before them.

CURWOOD: Five times what it was?

WEISHAN: Oh, at least. The fruits are much larger, much tastier.

[Ambient buzzing]

WEISHAN: If you've ever seen cucumbers where they'd sort of dribble to the end, a very narrow ending--it's because they weren't correctly pollinated. That problem has almost disappeared, so you have full, long, beautiful cucumbers, full tomatoes, really quite a difference in the garden.

CURWOOD: Huh... by the way, do you ever get stung?

WEISHAN: [Nonchalantly] Occasionally. We try not to get stung too often--

[Fly-by buzzing]

WEISHAN:--but it's, it's one of those things where, if you don't bother the bees, generally, they don't bother you. You're dressed appropriately, mostly in white. I'm actually in dark blue, so perhaps it would be best to move back. The bees don't seem to like dark colors.

[Buzz, buzz]

CURWOOD: I wouldn't mind moving back a bit.

WEISHAN: It's fine with me.

[Bees fade with distance]

CURWOOD: So, are bees the only pollinators?

WEISHAN: No, bees aren't the only pollinators. Most people think of honey bees, of course, as being the main pollinators, and for certain crops, they are. But for many crops, especially home garden crops, like tomatoes, for instance, the native pollinators are much more important. Certain types of flies, for instance, moths, butterflies, over 5,000 different species of native bees, are important pollinators in the garden.

CURWOOD: Now, I've heard that there are problems with bee mites, and that, in fact, the number of bees is disappearing quite a bit. How big an impact is that?

WEISHAN: Well, it's of a major concern. About 20 years ago, or so, the first mites were noticed in this country. Essentially, they prey on the young bees and essentially sap them of their strength so that the hives are very susceptible to other type of problems. And that's what's happened in most of our wild bees. There's very few bees, if any, left in the wild. Any honey bee you see is probably a domestic bee from some bee-keeper's hives, in your garden. Of course, simultaneously, the government in its infinite wisdom decided to remove the bee subsidy. We had been subsidizing bee hives since the second World War, because wax had been an important part in armament production. And at the time, when I heard about this, I thought it was a pretty good idea. Why do we need to pay millions of dollars a year for wax, right? Well, unfortunately, what it meant was, that many, many thousands of hives went out of production in this country, just when the populations were under stress and they estimate that we've lost almost $1 billion a year in crops and produce, food consumables, because of lack of pollination.

CURWOOD: Now, for those of us who don't want to get into the bee business, how can we attract pollinators to our gardens, so we can get juicier fruits and vegetables?

WEISHAN: Well, I think the most important thing is, to, first of all, stop killing the bees. A lot of people go out and think they're harmful and spray bushes. I know of one lady that was unhappy with a holly bush, and was spraying it with Raid, when, in effect, the bees were just trying to pollinate her bush and give her the berries she so much liked at Christmastime. I think, secondly, it's very important to think about types of plants that bees need to survive. There are certain things that they absolutely adore. The early flower blooms on fruit trees, for instance, are a major benefit to bees. Later on in the season, clover is an important pollen source, and nectar source. Surprisingly, dandelions, as well, are another major source of pollen and nectar for bees, very early in the season.

CURWOOD: They like that dandelion wine, huh?

WEISHAN: Yeah, exactly. And late in the season, later on, goldenrod, which people seem to think is a weed, which really is a very native, pretty native flower, and the Europeans value highly in their ornamental gardens is a terrific source of late-season pollen and nectar for the bees, very crucial for them for their winter survival. There's a whole series of native pollinators. Our native bees, which are solitary bees; they don't live in hives, and you can simply take a piece of soft wood, and drill a series of holes, about 5/16 of an inch wide, and about 5 inches deep in this wood, and hang it in a tree. And the bee will come, discover this piece of wood, and place honey and pollen in each little cell, and lay an egg there, and thereby make the next generation possible.

CURWOOD: Well, I'm not sure I'm going to keep bees, but it sure has been a lot of fun to find out about 'em, and so far, I haven't been stung, once!

WEISHAN: Not once!

CURWOOD: Before that happens, let me get out of here! Michael Weishan is Editor-in-Chief of "Traditional Gardens," and Living on Earth's new garden expert. Now, over these next weeks and months, Michael will be back to help us with our gardens, and to answer your questions. So send your queries to Living on Earth, 8 Story Street, Cambridge, MA 02138. That's 8 Story Street, Cambridge, MA 02138.

[Hums surge in background]

CURWOOD: And if you have access to the World Wide Web, there's a special page for Living on Earth listeners to send in their questions. The address is www.traditionalgardening.com. That's www.traditionalgardening.com



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