When I was growing up, a summer wasn't a summer until my first bee sting. Honeybees, in particular, were everywhere. During picnics we would often have to move from place to place until we found a shady bee-free zone at the local park. Playing kick-the-can in the afternoons, racing through the neighborhood yards was its own Olympics: could we make it through the game without anyone getting stung? Typical answer: Nope. Some kid always got "bee-kissed," putting an immediate end to the game. On days when we were allowed to play barefoot, running around the front yard was its own "dodge-bees" game. I never quite perfected the art of watching for bees and lawn furniture at the same time. This meant I was always bruised and/or scratching post-sting itches between my toes.
This summer, though, nothing. In spite of an unmowed front yard (I'm pretending this is for ecological reasons. Truth is, I'm lazy, and it's hot.) covered in clover, I've only spotted two honeybees. In the River Walk Park in Eugene, also clover friendly, I've seen only a couple, and I've had to look really hard for them. Not good.
We need bees. We especially need honeybees. They keep us in onions, cabbage, watermelon, walnuts, apples, avocados, plums, cherries, blueberries (!) and just about every favorite food I can imagine. Almonds. Kiwifruit. Carrots. Strawberries, for heaven's sake. Added together, the bees pollinate more than $14 billion worth of seeds and crops in the U.S. alone. I know they are disappearing. I'm guessing that most of us do. What is scary is the rate of the loss. According to statisticians tracking the disappearance, last year a third (a third!) of honeybee colonies died. The Washington State Beekeepers Association estimates that statewide losses could be as much as 50 percent. If this trend continues, the state's agricultural industry will be in serious trouble. Oregon faces the same heartbreak.
The old monks tell us that in crisis, there is always opportunity. For me, this means that the plants that haven't made it through the hot, dry month we call July are about to be replaced with honeybee Hilton Hotels. I am going to save any bees I can, so help me, Buddha. It is too late in the season to put in more Baby Blue Eyes, but I'm doubling the numbers of these bee-seducing flowers next spring. In the meantime, I've put a pile of old wood where the flowers used to be. Bees love those. And I've moved the leaf piles that never quite made it into the yard waste containers next to the wood. Bees love that, too. The clover stays. I know clover is considered a weed, but bee deaths trump clover spread in my book of karma.
Next up, Oregon Grape. Not just because it is Oregon's state flower. With its yellow flowers and purplish winter color, Oregon Grape is already a beautiful shrub. I don't know why I didn't think of planting a couple in the garden before this bee obsession. Oregon Grapes are evergreens that grow in the sun and the shade. When they are happy, which is almost always, they can grow up and out about four feet. As an extra bonus, old-time gardeners tell me that the fruit is edible although I haven't tried it. Because of its evergreen-ness, the leaves are a welcome winter spot of color and the leathery, shiny leaflets are beautiful in the rain. These are low-maintenance plants that actually thrive in weather like we are having. They forgive us for forgetting to water them and tolerate soil that is less than healthy. Their leaves don't wilt. And bees love them. I haven't even touched on their medicinal attributes. Let me just say that if health care goes the way of honeybees, you might want to have some Oregon Grape around if you have an infection, psoriasis, or eczema, to name just three health hazards that can be helped by parts of the plant.
The other winner in the land of bee seduction that I'm hunting down is toyon, a coastal sage scrub plant that also does well in these increasingly dry, hot summers. You might know the plant by the name Christmas Berry or California Holly. Toyon is lovely, with its red berries and long, shiny oval leaves. Also an evergreen, this means more sparkly leaves when the rains come. In the beginning of their flowering season, around May, toyon sprouts tiny white flowers that have a mild hawthorn scent. Honeybee heaven. Then the fruit appears and calls in birds as well. I'm told that the berries are edible and actually quite delicious when they are cooked in sugar and cheap wine and then poured over vanilla ice cream or stale sugar cookies.
Toyon is a little more finicky than Oregon Grape. Knowing I won't be able to get away with the clay "soil" in my yard, I'll probably plant a shrub in the biggest pot I can manage. Toyon also doesn't like temperatures below freezing very much. So I'll keep the pot near the garage just in case. On the other hand, given the right conditions, and planted in the ground, you could end up with a ten foot tree! Think of all those happy honeybees.