back in the good old days, there were lots of honeybees. They kept busy in the yard or on the farm, moving from one plant to another and carrying tiny bits of pollen stuck to their legs and wings along the way.
That's a simple way to explain pollination, one of nature's building blocks in which pollen is moved between two flowers of the same species or within a single (self-pollinating) flower. About 75 percent of all flowering plants and 1,000 agricultural crops rely on wildlife for pollination. Without these little winged creatures (butterflies, hummingbirds, beetles, moths and bats help out, too), plants wouldn't fruit, produce fertile seeds or reproduce.
When was the last time you saw a lot of honeybees — not just a single bee on occasion, but bees busily working in your yard? If you can't even remember, you're not alone. The U.S. honeybee population has declined by 50 percent in the past 50 years, and if the trend continues, certain fruits and vegetables will disappear from the global food supply, scientists warn. Goodbye tomatoes, oranges and other produce.
Honeybee demise is blamed on a number of factors, including diseases spread by mites and parasites, commercial and residential pesticide use, urbanization, increased use of modern hybrid flowers that don't produce pollen or nectar and lethal "colony collapse disorder" in which thousands of adult honeybees simply disappear from box hives harvested by beekeepers.
Worldwide efforts by government, corporate, education and private organizations are under way to restore bee populations and save the food supply, but homeowners are urged to take action, too.
"One person can transform an environment. For the home gardener, we've found evidence that the plants homeowners put in have a profound effect on natural areas near them," said Laurie Adams, executive director of Pollinator Partnership (www.pollinator.org) in San Francisco, a nonprofit conservation group. "You can influence up to 2 miles from your home because the insects that will use (your plants) for larval and other resources will also go out foraging and spread the good work of pollination beyond your garden. The whole thing is interconnected."
If planting a garden to attract bees and other pollinators sounds like a painful sting just waiting to happen, Adams' group is quick to point out that most bees don't sting unless they are physically threatened or injured. But you should always avoid bee nesting places and never disturb hives.
Your contribution to saving the bees can be as small as planting a few pollinating flowers in your garden this weekend. But don't buy a hybrid plant that's been engineered for its looks or longevity. Most don't create pollen or nectar (and probably have lost their perfume as well). Instead, choose a Florida native plant or heirloom variety.
Or you can create a bee garden filled with plants that will attract bees and other pollinators.
"Your garden is a blank stage without any actors if you don't bring pollinating plants in," Adams said. "Your garden will benefit and your family will get to see a living laboratory right in your own habitat."
A bee garden should include pollinating plants, a water source and shelter. The U.S. Forest Service recommends using a variety of plants placed in clumps that will provide blooms throughout the year. For shelter, leave a dead limb in the garden or build a bee nesting site by drilling several holes, 3 to 5 inches deep, in a piece of scrap lumber mounted to a post or fence. For water, a damp area mixed with sea salt will attract bees and butterflies. A shallow container placed on the ground will work, or you can use a damp sponge for an ideal landing site.
Reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides — especially when plants are blooming — is essential. If you must use a chemical product, spray at night when bees and other pollinators aren't active. Avoid all-purpose yard sprays to kill mosquitoes because you're also killing every other insect, including bees and other pollinators.
Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County.