What'll it bee, hon?

Do your part for the honeybee crisis: Put out a smorgasbord of flowering goodies for our pollinating pals.

Posted: August 24, 2007

Time was, you couldn't eat a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich without a yellow jacket landing on it and wrecking the picnic.

These days, the PB&J is harder to find, subsumed by trendier alfresco options. But the yellow jacket - which isn't even a bee, for Pete's sake - continues to be the poster child for bad bee behavior.

Actually, yellow jackets are wasps that look a lot like honeybees, but are thinner and more aggressive, especially at this time of year, when their populations peak. They like human food and garbage, and they can sting multiple times and keep on truckin'.

Meanwhile, the honeybee is really a mild-mannered creature that's fixated on flowers, not sandwiches, and is reluctant to sting because once it does, it dies.

Those who don't know the difference might celebrate the current honeybee crisis. But lovers of this marvelous creature consider it a tragedy that tens of billions of honeybees have mysteriously disappeared and died over the last three decades.

"I think many people don't understand how beneficial and gentle honeybees are. They're amazing," says Jeff Bryer, a psychologist who keeps 11 hives, each containing about 50,000 bees, in East Goshen, Chester County.

While scientists search for a cause for the bee-killing affliction known as colony-collapse disorder, there's something quick and easy gardeners can do to help:

"Grow just about anything that flowers, and honeybees will find it attractive," says Warren Graham Jr., a longtime beekeeper and master gardener in Edgmont Township, Delaware County.

So plant holly trees and privet hedge, grow zucchinis and cantaloupe, sunflowers and zinnias, and let the dandelions and clover flourish! The more, and more variety, you plant, the more Apis mellifera - the domesticated honeybee - will be tempted to visit.

But this is not a one-way proposition. It's a win-win.

By planting things that flower, you'll provide the bees with sources for nectar, a sugary liquid they convert to honey to feed their young and sustain the hive through winter.

The flowers also yield pollen, which the bees collect for food and which sticks to the fuzzy hairs that cover their bodies. As they travel from flower to flower, the pollen rubs off and fertilizes the plants, a hugely important development for commercial agriculture.

A 1999 Cornell University study estimated that honeybees pollinate about $15 billion worth of crops in the United States every year. That's about one-third of all the food we consume.

Some crops, including New Jersey blueberries, are 90 percent dependent on honeybee pollination, accomplished these days through rented hives. For California almonds, it's 100 percent.

The backyard benefits from honeybees, too.

"You can double your cukes and squash," says Bruce Gill, beekeeper, gardener and curator of Harriton House, a historic 18th-century estate and former tobacco plantation in Bryn Mawr.

"Who needs more zucchini?" he jokes.

Other pollinators are out there. But the honeybee - which, by the way, is the official state insect of New Jersey - is the most important.

And she's quite the opportunist. Yes, this does get tedious, the worker bees are all female. They gather the food, rear the kids, build the honeycomb, tend the queen, clean, and defend the hive.

The girls also pick up after the drones who, naturellement, are all male and literally exist for one thing only: to, as Gill so delicately puts it, "get lucky with the queen."

For all the laughs, Gill is serious about his apiculture, heading up the 22-member Harriton House Beekeepers Association. He has four hives on the property, his assistant, Rose Bochansky, has one, and each hive has about 55,000 bees.

Gill collected about 200 pounds of honey at the end of July, which will be given to Harriton House friends and visitors. Every year's honey is different, depending on the weather and the flowers.

This year, it's pale, with a light taste and floral scent, which Gill attributes to the white clover blanketing the 16-acre park surrounding the house. When nectar comes from the tulip poplar trees, the honey is dark amber; from the Evodia daniellii or beebee trees, it's especially sweet.

Bear in mind, says Gill, whose grandparents had a farm near Allentown, "honeybees will go where it's easiest or best, which means that, just as you can draw butterflies to your garden by planting things they like, you can draw honeybees into your space."

Honeybees adore the native sourwood trees at the 1704 Harriton House, whose most famous resident was Charles Thomson, secretary to the First Continental Congress. They also like the 300-by-700-foot fruit and vegetable garden cultivated by Gill and a dozen community gardeners.

During today's visit, it's loaded with the luxuriant excess of late summer. The honeybees are quick and direct, engrossed in the eggplant.

We stand in silence, sweating in the heavy heat, transfixed by the sight of so much purpose.

Inquirer photographer Ron Tarver shows how to produce art-quality garden photos at http://go.philly.com/artfromgarden.

Watch a video of Harriton House beekeeper Bruce Gill and his charges at http://go.philly.com/honeybee.

Contact gardening writer Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

Harriton House is at 500 Harriton Rd., Bryn Mawr. Information: http://www.harritonhouse.org/ or 610-525-0201.

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