Don’t zap pesky pollinators; feed them instead

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Bee look-alike: Some “bees” are really flies – as this beneficial Syrphid Fly which lurks in flowers feeding on nectar and aphids

A few weeks ago a fellow columnist in Coeur d’Alene suggested in a Sunday article that people purchase a long-range spray to kill the yellow-jackets that were harassing them.

Naturally I cringed when I read that — but in fairness recognized that many persons are really afraid of bees in general, and that allergic reactions can actually be deadly. I am one of those who are very sensitive to bee stings but years of working beside and around them has provided me with a lot of information that may be of use to others with the same problem.

One of the facets of that problem is that most folks think any bee look-alike with black-and-yellow (or white) stripes is a yellow-jacket or hornet. The fact is that there are many large and small species that fit that description that are valuable — and desperately needed — pollinators. Even the much maligned yellow-jackets, hornets and wasps.

There are many small, even tiny, yellow-jacket look-alikes, along with medium-to large sized ones as well — and if closely observed in a flower, will settle the argument. I closely watched a strange black/white striped hornet look-alike in a Peony last year and was amazed. It gathered pollen by “wallowing” in the laden stamens, crawling busily around and back-and forth until its legs were covered with the powdery stuff and then flying off with its treasure to a neighboring Peony. Simply amazing.

I’ve written before, and reiterate today that all the vital pollinators are in terrible danger, and have been for some time; all for the tradeoff of profit to greedy, completely unscrupulous chemical companies. A repeat of direct quotes from the Natural Resources Defense Council is appropriate here, as follows: “Bees are dying at an alarming rate awash in a deluge of next-generation pesticides unleashed by agrichemical giants like Bayer, Monsanto and Syngenta … Since 2006, as many as 35 percent of all bee colonies have collapsed in a single winter, with some regions reporting die-offs of 50 percent or more. Now, the science is in, and it leaves no room for doubt or delay. The world’s most widely used class of insecticides — called ‘neonics’ — is a key factor in the devastating collapse of bee colonies … in fact, some of the neonics are 5,000 to 10,000 times more toxic to bees than DDT … The result? A full blown crisis. (In 2013) the White House reported that the number of managed honey bee colonies in America has plummeted from four million in 1970 to just 2.5 million. More than 70 out of 100 major crops are pollinated by bees, not to mention the abundance of flowers and vegetables that bees pollinate in millions of backyard gardens across America. The Environmental Protection Agency continues to drag its feet … meanwhile, Bayer, Monsanto and Syngenta go right on selling these bee-toxic chemicals — and bees keep dying in droves … even as these global agrichemical giants are spending millions to market their trademarked poisons through a thick smokescreen of feel-good PR, their toxic neonics are killing bees all across the country … neonics are absorbed into the plant’s tissue, turning the plant into a tiny poison factory that emits toxins all the way from its roots to its nectar … and are extremely persistent, remaining in the soil for years … and they’re ruthlessly indiscriminate, killing a slew of beneficial insects — ranging from bees and butterflies to ladybugs and dragonflies … “ (Please go to NRDC.ORG/SAVEBEES for more updated information, and meanwhile, use organic methods and let the bees and other beneficials do their work).

Meanwhile, back to the story: I recently received a welcome phone call from long-time buddy Krystal Shapiro wherein she discussed her upcoming garden plans. During our conversation she mentioned the fact that she was upset about her yellow-jacket population but wouldn’t do anything about them since they are pollinators. We discussed the situation at length and I happened to mention that since I was allergic to bee stings I had learned to “share” outdoor meals with the opportunistic stripers by pushing small amounts of food to the edge of my plate for them to gather and fly off with. Too, we mentioned the yellow nectar bottles that lured them to their death — but along with other non-carnivorous members of the bee family. I said I have often urged readers to use raw ground meat or tuna/juice as a lure, since nectar-sippers wouldn’t be tempted to them.

Krystal immediately jumped on that one. “Well, we feed everything else — why not feed the bees?” Bingo! So, for those of you not too faint of heart, why not give it a try? Put a dish of meat or fish in an out-of the-way spot and let them go at it. Keep it refilled as with any feeder so they’ll congregate there and not at your BBQ. (If you’re the vindictive sort, you could set the dish in a plant-saucer of water for them to crawl into and drown when they’re sated and unable to fly — but at least they’d have a chance at survival and more pollinating action).

I have learned over time that the “Sweat bees” (aka pollinators) that look you over and drive you crazy on your deck do NOT sting, and flailing does absolutely no good. As with all bee encounters, slow, determined movement is the key. Last year, black hornets built a fabulous nest on my greenhouse window. On the inside through the glass, it was amazing — just like an ant farm. Outside, I had to pass it closely several times a day, so decided to “introduce” myself to them. I stood aside and watched them work, quietly doing my own thing — preparing potting soil, planting seedlings, etc., so they could see I was no threat. We interacted peacefully; once when I had to move a couple aside that were close to my activities, I actually gently pushed them away with the side of my hand. They very companionably moved away and continued their own work. I greeted them when I came near — “Hi, guys!” (though no one ever answered) — and never had one threatening encounter.

I am a great believer in communication — I guess that’s why I’m in the business — and I maintain that it is possible with all living creatures; move slowly but with purpose, make no threatening movements, mind your own business — and simply live and let live is the answer in nearly all encounters (unless you happen to run into a Grizzly bear mama and her cub). Give it a try, and good luck! We need all the pollinators we can get!

Valle Novak writes the Country Chef and Weekend Gardener columns for the Daily Bee. She can be reached at or by phone at 208-265-4688.

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