"Birds do it, bees do it. Even educated fleas do it."
Cole Porter would still be looking for lyrics if he were writing this song today, because not enough bees are doing it. Pollinating, that is.
In winter 2006, millions of honeybees began to disappear. Without them to pollinate our fruit and vegetable crops, our food supply suddenly was at risk.
This huge pollination of crops doesn't happen on a bee's whim. Hundreds of thousands of hives are moved by truck around the United States to farms that have paid for the visit by the millions of pollinators in those hives.
It was this link in the food chain that was endangered by the die-off of bees.
"We are still working to try to understand the decline," said Dr. Jeff Pettis, research leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research service-bee lab in Beltsville, Md.
Scientists suspect that parasitic mites or pesticide exposure might be behind the die-off, weakening the bee colonies to the point that any virus will kill them off.
"We are barely meeting the needs of the almond pollination in California," Pettis said. Apples and blueberries are in trouble, too, because beekeepers will move their hives somewhere else for a better payday.
"Even the backyard beekeeper has noticed it," he said.
There are things the casual gardener can do to help increase the bee population, Pettis said.
- Plant "pollinator-friendly" native plants and consider planting lots of a few species so bees expend less energy for a big reward.
- Don't use pesticides. Even "organic" pesticides can kill bees and other pollinators.
- Don't mulch every inch of your garden. Leave some dirt exposed for the ground bees and for the mud that the Blue Orchard Mason bees need to pack their breeding tubes.
- Don't be too much of a garden neatnik. Bees nest in old plant material, such as dead stalks or dead trees.
- Purchase nest kits, which are collections of tubes that Mason bees use for laying eggs.
Unlike honeybees, Mason bees have hairy bodies, which make them perfect pollinating devices. It can take only 500 Mason bees to pollinate an acre of apples, while it might take 100,000 honeybees to do the same job.
And there is another nice thing about Mason bees. They aren't territorial in the way honeybees are, and they rarely sting.
"They are fun," Pettis said. "You can watch them fill the tubes with eggs and then pack them with mud. It is fun to do with the kids, too, because you are at very low risk for a sting."
Position the nesting kits in a sheltered, sunny spot, facing east or south. Make sure they are safe from birds, mice or rats, which will eat the larvae.
For information about preserving the habitat of pollinators, visit the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign at nappc.org.