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Busy Bees
by Chloe Ellwanger

Squash Blossom with beeHumans, being a naturally prideful species, often require the presence of grand mountains, ancient trees, or powerful men to feel humbled. It is another beast altogether—and, I’d like to offer, a much more potent affirmation of finiteness—to be humbled by a creature no larger than a thimble. Yet, if we simply sit still and pay attention, a single bee will serve humankind more humility than God himself on judgment day.

The human species is no stranger to hard work. Whether living paycheck to paycheck or in a penthouse on Broadway, few people get through life without knowing what it’s like to work sunup to sundown and to do it all over again the next day. The term “busy bee” is often thrown around in these scenarios, and for good reason. Watch a bee for a day—she wakes with the dawn, vibrates the chill off her wings and gets to work. She commutes all day, to the garden, back home, back to the garden, and back home again, until the evening air becomes crisp and she’s forced to rest. Sound familiar?

There is, however, a very defining difference between us and the bees. This difference is exactly where we may find our egos hanging their heads and admitting “humanity”. While we work to become revered doctors, spend endless hours writing great speeches, and stay up all night wracking our brains about how to end climate change, bees do it all simply to carry on the genetic line. They have no legacy, they won’t be the “best” at what they do, their children will not tell stories of them—they won’t even know their children. They simply carry out their six-week lifespans, laying eggs and visiting flowers to create food for the larvae that they will never know, and then they die with no acknowledgment. When—if—those larvae make it through the freezing winter; survive the threat of birds, wasps, and cuckoo bees; and have enough bee bread preserves to develop fully, then when they finally emerge from their cell the following season, they continue the cycle. Fly, eat enough to survive, provide for the next generation. They do not try to grow plants and diversity, they do not try to feed the starving, they do not try to save the world—but they do. They do it for nothing and for no one, but the simple instinctual pull to leave the darkness and fly.

By far the most well-known of the bee family is the western honeybee. From honeybees we receive wax and honey, both revered commodities. The rise of Colony Collapse Disorder in 2006 gave a new light to the importance of bees in our agricultural system. Not only did it mean lower honey production, but it also gave rise to a larger question: if the bees disappear, who will pollinate our crops? Many crops rely on pollination by bees to provide good yields and genetic diversity. We’ve seen other countries’ systems attempt to replace the skills of bees with human workers and cotton swabs, to the detriment of their crops and wallets. Here in the U.S., farmers can now rent honeybee hives, which disorients the bees and still results in low-yielding crops and sick bees. While the cause of the downfall of bee populations is still under speculation, it seems that one very obvious solution has been overlooked by both commercial and home gardeners: solitary bees.

Perhaps the most important difference between social bees and solitary bees is the fact that solitary bees do not produce honey—at least not in large enough quantities for humans to concern themselves with. Unlike honeybees who collect pollen in pouches on their hind legs, solitary species collect pollen on their abdomens. They only need to bring as much back to their nest as is needed to make bee bread (food, for their larvae to feed on when they hatch over winter) which means they don’t have to be as particular as honeybees when it comes to leaving some behind as they flit from flower to flower. Rather than careful collection, solitary bees often simply rub their bellies on the flower’s stamen and coat themselves in pollen—imagine a dog rolling around in the dirt on a warm day. This is great for farmers and gardeners, as it means that the ratio of flowers visited and flowers actually pollinated is much higher than that of honeybees. Honeys can visit hundreds to thousands of flowers in a day but only pollinate about 15 due to their highly efficient pollen collecting method (which, I might add, is just as important of a quality as pollinating because it yields that liquid gold substance we all drool over), while solitary mason bees have the potential to pollinate about 2,000 flowers a day! It is easy to see how important it is to expand our knowledge and interest in native, solitary bees. Thor Hanson, author of Buzz, said it best—“Bees today certainly need our help, but just as importantly, they need our curiosity.”

And that is exactly what I would encourage you to do this garden season—get curious. Setting up solitary bee houses in your own garden and backyard is a much more feasible task than keeping a honey hive, and a much more beneficial one for your flowers, fruits and vegetables. While solitary bees, such as Mason and Leafcutter bees are not stinger-less, they are not as territorial as social bees can be, so it is a perfect opportunity for adults and children alike to observe the lives and behaviors of bees in more safely. There are so many resources to further your knowledge on solitary bees, and plenty of shops to help you establish a healthy population of Mason and Leafcutter bees in your area. Crown Bees and Knox Cellars Mason Bees are two companies who provide valuable information and the opportunity to purchase solitary bees and the tools you will need to set them up in your own backyard. It may cost you a bit up front, however, the keeping of solitary bees in much like that of seeds—if you do a little bit of research, and put forth a little bit of effort, you can “save seed” and sustain your population for years to come with no additional financial investment. Plus, they work for their money! And if you’re lucky enough to live in an area where Mason and Leafcutter populations already exist, you may be able to simply set up a “bee motel” in your yard and wait for them to come.

As a child, I vividly remember following my Papa, the beekeeper, around his yard, enamored with his relationship with his honeybees. His eyes lit up when he spoke about them, and each time he would go tend to the hive they would land on his arms and chest, seemingly embracing their caretaker. My cousins and I would eat tomatoes and raspberries right off the bushes surrounding the hive, brilliant colors and inexplicable flavors bursting on our tongues, creating a tingling sensation in the corners of our jaws. They were the best fruits I have ever tasted. I thanked my grandparents, and I thanked the bees. I cannot recall a time since those days that I have not, in some way, honored the dead bees I’ve come across—whether that was a full on funeral (conducted with the assistance of my wild childhood imagination and a few equally wild friends), or laying the deceased specimen at the base of a rose bush or apple tree, a simpler practice I’ve chosen in my adult years. It seems a bit silly, even to me as I write this, to put so much effort into something so seemingly irrelevant. But I hold a deep reverence for the bees, and always will, as I have inherently understood since early childhood that even though I am a member of the most powerful species on planet earth, I, as we all do, rely completely on the existence of one of the smallest.

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