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Gentle honeybee is garden's best friend

Along with the eggplant, onions, tomatoes, and so forth, our garden has given us an additional bonus this year: 64 pounds of honey!

Strictly speaking, it was more than just my garden that gave us all that honey. Bees, with little respect for property lines, gathered in nectar from all my neighbors' gardens - and some town-owned woodlands as well. The point is, bees fit into a gardening program as readily as clean hands slip into silk gloves.

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In what might be looked on as an admirable bartering operation, the bees render a service (pollination) to the flowers in return for the nectar they turn into honey.

The gardener benefits all round. For providing the bees with a hive and tending a good garden, he or she gets better-pollinated fruit and vegetables plus all the sweetness a household would ever need for baked goods, canned fruits, jellies, jams, and beverages.

A friend of mine, a beekeeper in this town by the name of Paul Thomas, had prompted me for years: ''What's a good gardener like you doing without any bees?''

My stock reply: ''I never saw a zucchini with a thorn. Every bee carries a sting.''

My friend would counter with how he frequently worked with bees without feeling the need even for protective gloves. (This year, for example, he gathered 800 pounds of honey from his hives, wearing a veil and coveralls, but no gloves - and he didn't sustain a single sting).

So we took the plunge and found out how gentle bees really are. On many an occasion my wife and I have stood watching the bees from close quarters and inadvertantly moved into the flight path (not recommended). We have felt returning bees bump into us and continue on into the hive without so much as an irritated buzz.

I have also rescued exhausted bees (after being trapped on our breezeway) by putting a tiny drop of honey on my fingertip (jelly or wet sugar would also do) and letting the insect crawl onto my finger and refresh itself. I would walk outdoors with the bee and, when the honey was gone, it would fly off. Only the other day, as I in my coveralls, bee veil, and gloves removed the honey-filled cones from our hive, my wife stood a mere three feet back, handing me such tools as I needed. She wore no protective clothing at all.

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Even so, there are some things to be careful of. At the height of a honey flow, bees work so hard that they wear out their wings in about four days. Unfortunately, the bee lives on for a few hours after it cannot fly and, in that vulnerable situation, is more ready to sting than usual. As a result I have had to forego the pleasures of walking barefooted around the garden on warm summer evenings.

Don't wear aftershave lotion or other scents when working near a hive. Some scents irritate bees; others attract them. Either way, you don't want the insects buzzing around your head. They're not too partial to the smell of perspiration either as I found out after returning from a four-mile run.

Our honey harvest, at retail value, is worth in excess of $60. Nationwide, the annual honey crop is worth $150 million. But, as the Department of Agriculture asseses it, the honey crop is a drop in the bucket compared to the value of bees as pollinators. Annually, bees pollinate crops worth $8 billion. More than 50 crops are dependent on bees. Bee-pollinated crops - such as apples, oranges, cherries, and a whole range of vegetables - provide one-third of the US diet.

In my garden, the bees particularly enjoyed the raspberries and the chives when they were in flower. For a brief period it seemed they never looked farther than the willow tree for nectar. At this writing they are still avidly working the cucumber and squash beds, and consequently there is no lack of edible fruit.

One of the easiest ways of getting into bees is the way we did it with the help of a local beekeeper. Otherwise, start by reading a book on the subject. Like so many things in this country, bees can be bought through the mail. They're listed in the Sears catalog, for example.

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