A Bee Named Sharon


Imagine bees wearing yellow “Eat Local, Drink Local” shirts, towing red “Eat Local, Drink Local” airplane banners and chanting “Eat Local, Drink Local” mantras. Each bee has a name (Sharon, Travis, Becky…) because these bees, just like everyone else, know the postman and pharmacist. Just like we do, bees live locally and eat locally. Just like we do, they appreciate the nuances and specialties of our local food system. With bountiful local food (aka flowers), the bees are healthier and have stronger, more vibrant communities: a positive feedback loop to gift society with even more fruits and vegetables. Actually, thinking like an “Eat Local, Drink Local” bee can help you increase the yield from your own backyard garden and orchard.

Grumblings about reduced crop yields from people with agricultural pursuits in suburban and urban settings are becoming more common. While environmental factors such as drought, nutrient poor soils and competition from weeds may have affected productivity, the crops may have been poorly pollinated due to a shortage of pollinators. Like all foraging animals, bees make thoughtful decisions in order to minimize the amount of effort it takes to get the most food. They consistently return to and visit the flowers in previously foraged land. This behavior reduces the uncertainty of finding food (flowers) in a world where there is an abundance of flowers on one parcel and asphalt and green lawn on the next. This predictability of a bee visiting a yard or farm is reduced as the bee’s food resources become smaller or more dispersed. We go to the farm stands and grocery stores that consistently offer the products we need, so it makes sense that bees do this, too! If bees are not accustomed to going to your backyard, then fewer bees will pollinate your fruits and vegetables.

One of the easiest steps you can take to ensure a bountiful garden is to let your lawn live a little! A lawn full of clover, dandelions and violets is a great thing! The bees will learn your backyard is a great place to visit. When your garden needs pollinating, the bees will be at the ready to help you out.

Much like we commute, some bees fly the same routes. For example, bumblebees learn the location of individual plants and visit them in sequence, often repeating the same foraging path several times during a single trip. Thus bumbles are able to improve their food collection rates by revisiting flowers before the refilling rate of a flower’s nectar has markedly decelerated. After a flower has been pollinated, the plant absorbs the unused nectar.

Pollination is simply the act of transferring pollen grains from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma (plant sex!); approximately 70 percent of the world’s flowering plants rely on insects, birds or bats for this work. The only reason plants produce nectar is to entice pollinators to the flower, with the hope that their travels will result in the transport of pollen. Nectar is mostly carbohydrates in the form of sugars and is used for immediate energy by the bees (in more arid climates, nectar is also an important source of water). The excess pollen collected by bees is their protein source and is eaten by the adults but also fed to developing young. Interestingly, plants have evolved to produce just enough nectar to attract pollinators but not too much that the food reward is too great and the pollinator doesn’t need to move on to more flowers (making the pollinator a nectar thief instead of a pollinator). Wind-pollinated plants (such as wine grapes and grasses) and water plants (such as eelgrass and duckweed) have no reason to produce nectar, only vast amounts of pollen.

People think “Eat Local, Drink Local,” and so do bees. Be a good neighbor to bees and they will reward you with abundant food!

MORE Find out about Laura’s crayons made of beeswax.