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“I’m allergic to bees!”

Mention the word “bee,” and some people start to hyperventilate. “Oh, I’m allergic to bees.” is a statement you will hear from half the people discussing the topic. This is not true. Since bees are such a vital part of our food supply, we need to get some perspective on the situation, rather than hitting the panic button, and killing the bees. Especially gardeners should be sensitive to the need for the bees, and the obvious fact that bee numbers are seriously declining, causing pollination problems for lots of gardeners.

A report by the USDA says:  ”Many people believe they are allergic to honey bees when in fact they are experiencing symptoms of a normal reaction. Only a very limited portion of the population (one or two out of 1000) is allergic or hypersensitive to bee or wasp stings.”

Bumble bee on plum blossomBumble bees will ignore you while foraging, and will sting only to defend their nest, or reflexively if stepped on.

 

Swelling and redness around a sting site are perfectly normal reactions. The USDA goes on to say, “The average person can safely tolerate 10 stings per pound of body weight. This means that although 500 stings could kill a child, the average adult could withstand more than 1100 stings. Most deaths caused by multiple stings have occured in elderly individuals who may have had poor cardiopulmonary functioning.”

Honey bee

Honey bees are major pollinators of food crops. If disturbed while foraging on a flower, they will move away. At their colony, they will be defensive if they perceive a threat.

Unfortunately for the bees, all venomous insects are grouped together in the statistics (most emergency room doctors could not tell the difference between a bee and a wasp sting, anyway). So bees may well be blamed for reactions from wasps, hornets or even fire ants.

Yellowjackets are the most frequent venomous insects to sting human, as they will vigorously defend their nests. They also seek out sugar in late summer/fall, and can be a problem at dumpsters, picnics, and especially soda drinks, where they can enter unseen, and sting ones mouth or throat when drinking.

About 50 deaths occur per year from all venomous insects combined. It is likely that the majority of these are from yellow jacket wasps, and bees only account for 5-10 per year.

To put this in perspective, dog bites kill 30 people per year in the US; horse riding accidents kill 20; about 30 people per year are killed by falling TVs and other furniture; lightning strikes kill 55; drowning kills 3,300; auto accidents kill about 30,000; flu kills 36,000 people each year; and, worldwide, mosquito bites kill about 3 million people per year.

Emergency room doctors often have no or little training in allergies, and the statement, “The next sting could kill you.” is likely just covering their own butts for their lack of knowledge.

I would be more concerned if a competent allergist diagnosed an allergy. In the case of a genuine allergy an epi-pen should be carried at all times. Or better yet, get the series of treaments to desensitize oneself.

To live in this world involves engaging risks. You don’t even have to go outside your home to find risks.  I was putting on my shoes one morning, and was stung high on the arch of my foot by a yellow jacket that was inside my shoe. I have no idea how it got there. But it cost me a day’s work, because my foot swelled too much to wear a shoe.

As a farm kid and a career pollination contractor, I’ve been stung by just about everything that stings in North America. Honey bees give me very little reaction; often within 20 minutes, I could not find the spot where I was stung. Yellow jackets and hornets cause a lot more reaction. The most painful sting I ever had was from a “cow killer” (velvet ant), but this only cost me a few minutes lost work time and little swelling. Stings cause more swelling, and are more painful around one’s eyes, ears, nose and mouth.

One of the worst places I’ve ever been stung was on the eyeball, which gave me a throbbing headache; forced me to take a couple Tylenols and lie down for a couple hours before going back to work.

Another bad sting was by a hornet on the temple, when I was on a tractor mowing hay. This one caused me to black out, but I am thanksful I was conscious long enough to knock the gearshift lever into neutral. Whether I was out for a minute or twenty, I do not know, but I awoke slumped over the steering wheel with the tractor racing and the sickle bar mower still running at full speed.

I certainly have a healthy respect for stinging insects, but I will not harm them, if I can help it. Only in rare cases is it necessary to kill a colony of bees, and even yellow jackets have an important role to play in pest control in the garden, so I won’t harm them either, unless they build their nest in high human traffic areas. Paper wasps, mud daubers, and carpenter bees are all quite laid-back insects, all beneficial,  and I will never bother them. either.

As I said, life is full of risks. But when we magnify those risks by our lack of knowledge and perspective, it becomes paranoia.  A healthier response to risk is common sense efforts to mitigate them. I won’t quit driving, but I will wear a seat belt.

Common sense responses to bees is to give them some space, avoid quick motions and vibrations when they are around (especially resist the urge to swat at them – and be perceived a threat), and avoid panic. It’s important to teach children the importance of bees, if we want to eat, and learn not to disturb them on purpose. And not to run barefoot through the clover!

Balancing the risk of being stung against the risk of famine by loss of pollinators gives the pollinators the upper edge in most situations.

Marigold – the miracle plant

I love this flower. It will flourish on poor soil, needs little fertilizer, feeds your pollinators, repels pests, all the while beautifying your homestead. This is dwarf French marigold, Tagetes patula. Our homestead is practically overrun with these. Our bees and butterflies love them.

(If you plant them, be careful never to contaminate the blossoms with pesticides that will kill off your pollinators.)

Bumblebee on marigold

Marigolds are much loved by bumble bees, Melissodes bees, and honey bees, and occasionally visited by other species as well.

DFMs are a non-chemical way to control root knot nematodes, which are the bane of many a gardener with sandy soil, especially in the South. Commercial vegetable growers have powerful fumigants for root knot suppression. These are unavailable to gardeners, and dangerous to use, as well.

One can use a cover crop of DFMs in a fallow year, to nearly completely suppress these nasty pests, or one can interplant with the veggies to partly suppress them.

Root knot nematode symptom on tomato plant

A heavy infestation of root knot nematode on tomato roots will result in many nodes on the roots, and the plant will be severely stunted and unproductive. This pest also affects many other vegetable crops.

 

Normal tomato roots - free of root knot nematodes

Normal tomato roots - free of root knot nematodes

 

Another nemesis of many gardeners is the squash bug. A heavy infestation can kill your squash plants.

Adult squash bug

Adult squash bug

 

Squash bug nymphs - the immature form of the bug

Squash bug nymphs - the immature form of the bug

 

Squash bug eggs, usually on the bottom of the leaves

Squash bug eggs, usually on the bottom of the leaves. You can see also a tiny parasitic wasp, which is your friend. It will lay eggs that will hatch and be parasites of the squash bugs.

 

The first year I had a border of dwarf French marigolds around one of my squash beds, I noticed that I had no squash bugs in that bed whatsoever. Yet within a hundred feet, I had another squash planting that was heavily infested. Since then I have surrounded or interplanted DFMs with my squash. And, in the past three years, I’ve never seen another squash bug in my garden – although my neighbors have them.

(To get photos of squash bugs, I had to visit other gardens that had them.)

DFMs seem to work with cucumber beetles as well. These have vanished from any spot near the marigolds, although there are usually a few on my sunflowers in the front yard. I think they help with other insects as well. But they have failed to be any help with squash borers or pickleworm.

While they repel many harmful insects, they seem to be good hosts for some beneficial insects. I see a lot of assassin bugs on mine, and I am careful to let them alone. They may eat a bee now and then, but they’ll also eat aphids, flea beetles, caterpillars, Japanese beetles and many other pests.

 

Hints for growing your own

T. patula will do fine in the North, but is especially suited for southern USA, because extreme heat doesn’t bother it a bit. It will continue to produce masses of bloom when other flowers have faded out. Of course sweltering heat is often accompanied by drought – and I would advise watering as needed in times of drought.
In the South, you can plant these seeds in beds outside in the fall, winter or spring, and they will grow when the soil warms in the spring. To start them blooming earlier, begin them inside as you would tomatoes. I find good results by sowing them thickly in trays in a sterile seed starting medium. Don’t overwater, as this encourages damping off. When they are in their second leaf, transplant into individual containers.
Here in South Carolina, I’ll be planting about January 20 to February 10 in the trays. They are set out in the ground about the same time tomatoes go out. Do not put in deep shade or boggy areas. Mine bloom from early May through early December. It takes a hard frost to kill them.
I use fertilizer VERY sparingly. I have tried deadheading flowers, but find it’s really unnecessary, and very time consuming, due to the large quantity of blooms. About mid-season, the plants begin to get a bit rank, so I prune them severely, removing about half the plants. This stimulates regrowth and dense clusters of new bloom.

Saving seeds

To save seeds cut off dead flowers when they are mostly dry, but not shedding seeds. If you wait too long, they will spill all the seeds from the capsules. Put them in a warm dry place with plenty of air circulation (flat trays or hung up). Protect from mice if necessary. When they are crunchy dry, and the seeds are starting to fall out, hold each seed capsule tightly, and pinch off the dried blossom petals. Then roll the capsule in your fingers over a tray or container and the seeds will fall out.
Flowers are produced by the thousands, but you’ll only need a dozen or so to supply plenty of seed for yourself for next year. Just be sure it’s dry before you put it into closed containers or it may mold.

I have not tried other types of marigolds, but others who have, indicate to me that these do not work for pest suppression or repelling.


The misuse of a good cause

I recently received an e-mail from “Solutions from Science” that promotes a system of seed sprouting for emergencies.

Now the concept is good. We grow sprouts ourselves, and they are easy to do and highly nutritious.

But I get suspicious when I see that hype and misinformation are used to promote a high-priced product (and it is very high priced).

I have two questions for these folks – “Why can’t you tell the truth?” and “Why do your prices seem like a real rip-off?

A pollen-coated bumblebee

You are telling me that bumblebees aren't good pollinators?

I’ll leave the reader to judge further about the price. You can go to their site, if you want to see their comercial at:  http://www.survivalsproutbank.com/

But here’s what they said in their e-mail with reference to the pollinator crisis:
“If only it was [sic] the weather. Unfortunately, it’s something much more insidious and much less understood than climate changes. It’s called “Colony Collapse Disorder.”

With Colony Collapse Disorder, you have entire hives of bees dying off, and no one has been able to ascertain why or pinpoint a cause.

You may wonder how this affects your garden.Look out the window. Do you have beautiful tomato plants… with no tomatoes? Are your squash plants leafy and vibrant… with no squash? Are you looking at a luscious green garden with little or no produce to show for it? That’s what a dearth of honey bees will do. You have to have bees to pollinate in order to make many vegetables and fruits.”

Tomatoes – honey bees?  Nope!  It’s true that honeybees will work tomato plants – when they reach a saturation point where little else is available and honey bees are desperate. And they may accomplish a little bit of pollination.

In all my years as a beekeeper and flower observer, I’ve seen honeybees on a tomato blossom maybe a half dozen times. Now I’ve seen bumblebees many thousands of times, and even seen sweat bees a whole lot more often than honeybees.

I love my honey bees and I maintain a few hives in my back yard. But it would be a phony argument for me to ascribe my tomato pollination to them. I have two species of bumblebees that consistently visit my tomato blossoms. And that’s the truth!

Squash? Again, it’s not a favored plant for honey bees. In a garden setting, which is what these folks refer to, honeybees aren’t likely to even visit squash blossoms. They are beat to the draw by squash bees, bumble bees and sweat bees.

Now in a large field, where there is little competition from other flowers (and there are few squash bees), honey bees are brought in to pollinate the squash. And they do a fine job, with a little help from bumble bees.

They go on to say: “According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about a third of our food comes from pollinated plants, and the honeybee is responsible for 80 percent of that pollination. Larger bumblebees cannot pollinate as effectively (if at all) as the smaller honeybee. Today, wild populations of bees are nearly gone. Instead, the bee has become dependent on the human population to insure its survival, and beekeepers struggle to maintain vibrant bee colonies.”

Struggle?  I’m not struggling to keep my honey bees alive. They are doing fine, thank you – as long as my neighbors obey label directions in using pesticides, I’m confident they will continue to do fine!

Bumblebees not pollinators? HA!  A bumble bee is about three times more effective in pollinating cucumbers than a honey bee!

Bumblebee in cotton blossom

Tell me again that bumblebees aren't good pollinators!

And many flowers are almost exclusively pollinated by bumblebees. Now in an agricultural setting, honey bees are more important, partly because they have 30,000 hive members as opposed to around 100 for bumblebees, and honey bees are portable and manageable.

But to question bumble bees’ ability to pollinate? That’s the biggest one yet!

What bothers me (and I see this a lot, particularly when someone is selling something) is the mixture of fact and fiction. When that happens we wind up with “myth” or “hype.”

And I’m not going to buy anything from those who play fast and lose with the truth!

A garden should be a symphony, not a battle zone

I have *almost* no insect pests in my garden.

I’m not bragging so much as wishing to share some wonderful principles that I have learned.

I like to browse the Internet garden groups, and am seeing large numbers of gardeners who are losing all or a major part of their garden crop to aphids, grasshoppers, tomato worms, flea beetles, squash bugs — you name it, and somebody, somewhere has a major problem with it.

If these are a problem year after year, something is wrong. We often treat our gardens as if we are fighting a fire. We stamp out a spot fire here, and another pops up there. We are in constant damage-control mode. A garden should be a symphony, not a battle zone.

Here are some of the important principles to consider:

1. Learn to work alongside Nature instead of fighting her. Simply by tilling the soil, we are altering Nature a great deal. Then we plant monocultures, add herbicides, spray poisons for pests, add extremely concentrated nutrients, and generally totally disrupt Nature’s balance in multiple ways. How can we reduce our impact and get things back into balance?

My garden is no longer tilled. The only soil that’s disturbed is the spot where I put a seed or a plant. Minimal! I don’t pack it down either. All my gardening is in raised beds that I can reach without walking on it. I let the worms till it, the natural way. I can wiggle my fingers and easily dig six inches into the soil.

2. Feed the soil. Our southeastern soils are naturally heavily leached, so they are mineral poor. They tend to be higly acid. Organic matter is near zero because of burning of crop residues and scorching of the sun. I add about an inch of compost each spring on the top. The worms till it. Then I use lots of leaves and grass clipping for mulch around the growing plants. This cools the soil, preserves moisture, and promotes biological diversity in the life of the soil.

Yes, plants grow much better when the soil is teeming with life – much of it too small for you to see. These organisms feed the plants. Plants grow sturdy and resistant to pests. If used at all, fertilizer is used sparingly. We don’t want an artificial growth spurt, especially one from overuse of nitrogen, which actually makes plants more susceptible to insect pests and disease.

3. Aim for as much biodiversity as possible. Mix it up. Yes, plant your flowers intermixed with your veggies. If you choose your flowers well, you can have nectar and pollen sources that run continously through the garden season. Some folks do this for pollinators – and this is good – but most don’t realize that you also gain pest control. Many pollinators, soldier beetles for example, in their adult stages are voraceous predators in their younger life.

Marigolds add to the biodiversity of the garden

Tomatoes in raised bed, marigolds in the cells of the concrete blocks, asclepias and borage also planted alongside - result - not a single pest this season!

4. Don’t freak out when you see a pest, and go to battle to eradicate it! Identify it. Learn about its life cycle; its food preferences; its enemies. The more you know, the better you are prepared to deal with it.

A lot of folks dust their garden at the first sign of any insect. This is very bad policy; first the insect may well be a friend. And second, using a pesticide that’s not labeled for an identified pest is a violation of the label (pesticide misuse), and it may well be ineffective or add risks that you don’t need.

5. Learn to accept some damage and the sight of a few pest insects. Ten years ago, we had a plague of Japanese beetles. Today, I can count on my fingers the number I see each year. The reason – we are practically overrun by assassin bugs, who love to eat Japanese beetles.

Now when I see an occasional Japanese beetle here or there, I am glad. I don’t want a pest to die out completely – as its control may then also die or leave the area. I just want to keep them in balance.

Bubba, you’ve got a home here as long as you live!

While watering my flower beds, I noticed a hole next to the house foundation. I wondered what creature was accessing the crawl space. Could it be a rat, a snake?

I don’t get bent out of shape too much about wild critters. Most mean us no harm, and actually will help us. But rats and mice are certainly not welcome. And poisonous snakes would not be either, though I am happy for non-poisonous ones.

On a whim I tried filling the hole with water from the hose. In a moment this little guy popped out:

Bufo terrestris - Southern garden toad

Bufo terrestris - Southern garden toad

I don’t think he minded the water; he doesn’t like his skin too dry, so he goes underground when the sun gets hot.

But I told him he’s welcome to stay; my house is your house, as they say!

He’ll make a meal of many a pest insect (slugs too). Maybe he’ll eat a few of the good guys too, but on balance he does far more good than harm.

Here’s more info on toads, and how to care for them in winter:

http://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/National-Wildlife/Gardening/Archives/2006/Backyard-Houses-for-Toads.aspx

 

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