Honoring our bargain with the bees benefits them and us

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If there are bees in your car, the smart thing is to pull over, open the doors and let them out. Everyone will be happy.

In the long history of negotiations between man and bee, that’s a simple one. Others have been more complex. We had to learn to take their precious honey without getting stung or doing harm to their colonies. We figured out that bees pollinate our food crops, and it’s in our interest to keep them healthy. We bring in hives of migrant worker bees when local populations aren’t high enough for the job.

We haven’t honored our bargain with the bees, though, and now they’re in trouble. Urbanization, monocropping and other trends have robbed them of nectar sources and, in the case of native bees, habitat. Environmental pollution has taken its toll. And a spike in the use of bee-toxic insecticides called neonicotinoids has been linked to a sharp decline in bee numbers.

The higher you go in the authority chain, the less you see being done about that. The federal government? Not much. State governments? A bit more. Big stores like Lowe’s, which is phasing out its sales of neonicotinoids? A commendable effort, in response to pressure from activist groups, who represent — I do believe — the majority view. Perhaps if we all asked stores whether their products contained imidacloprid, clothianidin, thiamethoxam, dinotefuran or acetamiprid before we bought, it would encourage them not to sell these products. We are an enormous hive, and we can swarm together when it is necessary to take a new path.

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One thing I’ve learned about the readers of this column is that they feel warmly toward the wild co-workers in their gardens, even unlikely ones such as spiders, snakes and toads. With bees the feeling can be quite intense. When I go out to cut flowers to bunch and sell at the farmers market, my hands are right in there with the bees. We don’t bother each other. Once in a while I reach for a blossom without seeing the bee inside. It feels trapped, it stings, and my finger swells up as big as a cow’s teat. Nothing personal, though.

I encourage wildflowers to bloom all around our farm, for a good nectar supply, not just the true natives such as asters and goldenrod, but also the European invaders such as daisies, clover, hawkweed and vetch. Bee vision is most drawn to the purple-blue-violet part of the spectrum, which is why clumps of blue salvia, catmint and lavender are always humming and quivering with the bees’ work. I would even forgive purple loosestrife its takeover of our waterways, edging out more timid natives, if its blossoms could save the bees.

The sunflowers I pick are a special case. I’ll find bees, a dozen of them, in a perfect ring around a flower’s central disk, so absorbed in their feeding that I must gently flick each one off with my finger before I cut the thick stems, put them in buckets, and bring them indoors for bunching. I always miss a few bees, which I find buzzing on the windows, so I pick them up carefully with Kleenex and send them out the back door. It’s a negotiation. We share the garden. It’s not just my flower, and it’s not just my world.

Damrosch is author of “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook”; her website is www.fourseasonfarm.com.

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