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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.

The immortal onion

 

Here in the Southland, onions can be a year around crop. In fact, we’ve found that for green onions, we don’t even need to seed them anymore.

Now most people think of onions as a summer crop, but it’s pretty nice to go pick some fresh crisp green onions for your cooking, in the dead of winter. Actually it’s more of a three-season crop, as it will live, but greatly slow its growth in the heat of summer.

Some time ago I was given a large bunch of green onions from the store that were dried out and unsaleable.

Green onions dried out

Green onions dried out

I decided that the best thing to do was to plant them.

Dried up onions are set out in the garden

Dried up onions are set out in the garden

 

In six weeks they looked like this:

Onion regrowth

Onion regrowth

 

And when pulled they looked like this:

Green onion harvest

Green onion harvest

The wonderful thing is that the story does not end here. When preparing the onions for cooking, I simply cut off the lower (bulb) part and saved it, along with the roots, which I replanted.

Green onion - cutoff bulbs

Green onion - cutoff bulbs

These are simply replanted and they grow again. Here’s what they look like in three weeks, despite the scratchings (and replanting) due to an errant hen:

Green onion regrowth

Green onion regrowth

This cycle can be repeated over and over for many years, indicating an endless supply of green onions -forever!

 

Get your fruit trees from a quality nurseryman!

February 9, 2012

It’s time to plant, right now in the Deep South. If you wait until Spring, it’s actually too late. The plants need to get established before the heat of summer comes – and late planted nursery stock is much more apt to die.

One problem many homeowners don’t recognize is that, by the time fruit trees show up in the Big Box stores, it’s already too late. These stores are geared toward the North rather than the South.

There are many other reasons to avoid the Big Box stores and purchase from a reliable nurseryman. Our favorite local nurseryman is Stanley McKenzie of Lake City.

If you are in this area, I highly recommend him. If you are in another area, I encourage you to search for local businesses of equal competence.

Here are some reasons why I prefer my trees from Stan, rather than from Lowes, or Home Depot, or the grocery and farm store chains:

1. Stan knows what does well in the South, and the varieties he supplies are those that are tested for productivity here. The Big Box stores sell the same varieties nationwide, so you often see apples like Red Delicious, McIntosh, and others which do very poorly here. They require much more winter chilling than we get, except in an extreme winter.

2. Your questions are answered, if you go to Stan. At the Big Box stores, the staff usually doesn’t have a clue about how to best grow them.

3. Stan’s plants are stocky and strong. You won’t find any sickly, half dead ones there. I have lost trees purchased elsewhere, but have never lost one from Stan.

4. Stan’s prices are very competitive. Nuff said!

5. Stan offers varieties and kinds of fruit that you won’t find in the Big Box stores. Yesterday we purchased two plum trees, two rabbiteye blueberries, a pomegranite, and some spring bearing strawberries. I have looked everywhere for spring bearing strawberries, and have only found everbearing – until I asked Stan about them.

Last year we purchased a cold hardy Satsuma orange tree from him, and in earlier years got a Lisbon lemon (potted to go inside in the winter), muscadine grapes, figs, and pineapple guavas.

Stan is famous for his hardy citrus. He is expanding his line, as he finds varities that work here in the Southeast. I find it pretty neat to be able to grow apples (low chill) right alongside citrus trees. I’d be growing a lot more of both of them if I had the space.

Another favorite nurseryman, interestingly, is in the North, but they have southern experience and can supply some unique low-chill apples, as well as other fruit. This is Cummins Nursery in Ithaca, NY,so, of course, their items must be shipped to the South. What I’ve said about McKenzie Farm Nursery is equally applicable to Cummins Nursery.

Steve Cummins is exremely knowledgeble; he has always answered my questions well, and the best surprise is always in opening the box, and finding trees that are twice the size and in better condition than any other bare-root plants I’ve ever gotten. I certainly can’t recommend this family business more highly.

The mass merchanizers have ways to entice us to make impulse purchases. But planting a tree is a long term committment. Perhaps the wise words of Mark Twain would also apply here – “Marry in haste; repent at leisure!”

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!

Why am I talking so much about pollination

 

Some have commented to me that I seem to spend an inordinate amount of my blog on the topic of pollination, and have asked why.

There are several answers. One is that good pollination information is hard to find, though there are many sources of inadequate, or just plain wrong information online. And a lot of garden and farming literature simply ignores pollination completely.

I was just looking around on the Internet at various Extension publications about watermelon culture, both for those who sell them and those who just raise them for home use. It’s surprising to me how many of them say nothing about pollination. To me, this is a disservice when a serious Extension publication purports to teach growers, yet assumes pollination will just take care of itself.

I have seen entire fields of watermelons, squash and other crops that were unharvestable or had to be severely culled, because of pollination failure. Pollination is a vital input in agriculture today, but it’s the least understood of all inputs.

So, as you can see, I am working on an article on watermelon pollination. If you don’t understand watermelon pollination, you don’t understant the plant!

A second reason that I concentrate on pollination is that this was my livelihood and specialty for my career. Although I am now retired from active duty in the contract pollination field, I figure it’s my responsibility to make sure I share the things I have learned in years of experience, observation, and study.

A third reason, is that I have available the many years of photos that I’ve taken, so I can usually well illustrate the points I make – and this makes it more interesting and clear for my readers.

You could say, this is the payment of dues for my spot on this earth. And I hope it does help!

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

 

It’s all my mother’s fault!

When I was four years old, my mother handed me two packets of seeds and pointed to a row in the garden.

“That’s your own row now. You can plant your seeds there just like I do.”

The pictures on the packages made their contents plain. The one held radish seed. I was sophisticated enough, having watched her do gardening, to realize that you had to put the seeds in the ground and wait for them to grow.

I liked radishes, so that was a hit with me. The second one had a picture of a pretty blue flower on it. I didn’t want to do flowers. I wanted things to eat.

But my mother insisted. “These are bachelor buttons. You are a bachelor, so they are appropriate for you to grow.”

Bumble bee on Bachelor Button

Bumble bee on Bachelor Button

I had no idea what she was talking about; her wry humor was not apparent to me until years later. But I guess she impressed me with her big words and I went along with her.

She helped me, of course. I learned to hand weed, to hoe, to water the plants – all the sorts of things that gardeners do. Both radishes and bachelor buttons were failsafe, and they did well.

The next year I got a bigger section and more responsibility. She gave me some tomato plants, and ever since then, gardening has been mostly about tomatoes.  I soon acquired the habit of carrying a salt shaker to the garden with me during tomato season.

I don’t recall ever growing any flowers again until my “mature” years.

I began planting flowers around and among my veggies when I retired. I was looking for beauty, but moreso for plants for the bees and for biodiversity.

Then, I planted some bachelor buttons. As they came into bloom, and I (and the bees) enjoyed their beauty, I began to be immersed in the memory of those bygone years with my late Mama.

She knew, of course that she’d infected me with the gardening bug; that was pretty obvious.

But I wish I could tell her now, how special and beautiful was that row of bachelor buttons!

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