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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!

 

Three veggies for the long haul

Gardening is tough in the South!

Many southern gardeners have a lot of problems with pests. We think we’ve gone a long ways to solve most of the pest insect problems by working to build good populations of beneficial insects.

Many of the bad guys don’t have a chance here. Our paper wasps, assassin bugs, robber flies, mantises, lady bugs and others, along with our large bird population, keep most of the bad bugs from ever growing up.

It’s gotten so that my wife – who likes to raise butterflies – has to capture the larvae and bring them inside to munch on potted plants. Otherwise they become prey for one of our garden predators.

Pests are one thing, however, and disease is another. Heat and humidity seem to compound the disease problems. Even drought doesn’t seem to slow down the progress of disease.

This means that many veggies are only temporary. Tomatoes engage in a race with early blight, which gradually defoliates the plants. Our tomato crop was very good this year. But we also had them planted earlier than ever before. Folks that waited until the traditional plant day (Good Friday) pretty much lost the race. 85% of our tomato crop came on early. The rest was a smattering from a few holdout plants, especially the cherry tomatoes.

Squash and cukes race with powdery mildew, which also kills the leaves. I focused on tomatoes this year and the squash got planted late. We had very little squash.

Avoidance of the problems is very much coupled with good timing on plantings – early in the spring to mature before heat, or late in the summer to grow and mature in the fall.

I’ve come to appreciate a few veggies that just hang on and keep right on producing, no matter how hot and dry it is.

Young eggplant fruit

Eggplant resists heat and disease, has been knocking out fruit for us since June and shows no sign of stopping now in late Septmber.

One of these is eggplant. We planted them early, made sure we had plenty of bees to set those first blossoms – and they’ve never stopped producing from June to now in late September as I write this. As far as I can recall there are only two problems I’ve ever had with eggplant.

Eggplant and bumblebee

Eggplant is a bit difficult to pollinate, and blossom drop is the key symptom of problems. The deed is done by various bees (not usually honeybee) with bumblebees being the most efficient.

One is pollination – which should be obvious to gardeners, but often isn’t. And the other is flea beetles. In past years I’ve had eggplant eaten up by flea beetles, but with our increased populations of predator insects, these pests were only a minor and brief problem while the plants were young. Years ago, I sprayed eggplant for the flea beetles, but it did little good, anyway.

The second of these favorites of mine is peppers. We don’t go in for hot ones, but we grow a lot of sweet bananas and some bell peppers. Like the eggplant, they have very few insect pests (in our current environment), and seem to only have problems if there aren’t enough bees to pollinate. Diseases are practically non-existant, and heat doesn’t faze them a bit.

Sweet banana peppers

Peppers are a good Southern plant, resistant to heat and disease. They need bee pollination - usually by tiny Lasioglossum bees or bumble bees; rarely are they visited by honey bees.

The third is an old Southern tradition – okra. I believe okra could grow and fruit in Hell, as it simply loves hot weather. Young okra is a beautiful plant, with large dark green leaves and gorgeous creamy white flowers with red centers.

Okra flower

Beautiful okra flowers produce copious amounts of large sticky pollen grains, and the flowers are obviously are self fertile. These are one of the few garden plants that don't actually require bees, as the sticky pollen easily is transferred by beetles, flies and other agents.

But as it grows, it only produces on the top, and the lower leaves die and fall off. By late summer it is a rank, ugly plant. Some of mine are six to seven feet tall right now, and look quite disgusting. But they still keep on knocking out the okra pods.

Okra pod with lady bug

Okra keeps on producing in the hottest weather. This photo also shows one of our best garden friends, a lady bug beetle.

One secret, if you haven’t grown them before – pick okra young, before the pods get tough and stringy.

Have you got any favorite veggies that just seem to be long-haulers and failsafe for Southern gardens?

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