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Let's hear it for the honeybee

One of the more heartwarming sights in late spring is the number of bees - thousands of them - that swarm all over my raspberry patch. There are smaller numbers of furry bumblebees, yellow jackets, and a tiny beelike insect not much bigger than a housefly. But it is the honeybee that is the principal guarantor of a big berry crop at this stage - and for that I must thank the Pilgrim Fathers, among others.

Honeybees, in fact, have become the principal pollinator of United States food crops, even though nature never intended it that way. That's because the honeybee is not indigenous to North America. It arrived, along with the other colonists of the day, on tiny sailing vessels from Europe.

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Without bees, as the saying goes, we'd be playing a losing game in the garden as well as the farm. Bees pollinate about one-third of all US food crops.

Here are the home garden crops that specifically benefit from the bee's presence:

* Fruits: high-bush blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, and just about all tree fruit.

* Cucurbits: cucumbers, winter and summer squash, melons, and pumpkins.

* General vegetables: okra, eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, peanuts, and, to some extent, beans.

* Seed producers: sunflowers particularly, but all other seed producers as well.

Any gardener wishing to save his own seed also needs bees to pollinate members of the cabbage family, lettuce, carrots, onions, and the like.

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Why is the honeybee, an immigrant like so many of us, so important in the natural scheme of things in North America?

Because, with the advent of widespread spraying to control pests, we have eliminated a good many natural pollinators. The tiny native bee (not a noted honey producer) is actually considered a better pollinator than the honeybee in many respects, but its numbers have been decimated, apparently.

Bees are equally vulnerable to spraying, but at least they receive some measure of protection from man, who also does his best to propagate the insect.

While the native bee, a hardy traveler in this large land, will fly up to 15 miles in search of pollen and nectar, the European honeybee thinks 4 miles is about as far as any hardworking insect should be expected to fly, and less, if possible.

As it is, bees are estimated to fly an average of 55,000 miles to gather in enough nectar to make a pound of honey. So it will help if you make your garden as attractive to bees - and other natural pollinators - as possible.

One way is to provide water in a sloping dish so that a bee can walk down to the water's edge for a drink. A sloping pie plate on top of a fence post will do nicely.

A bee will have to visit several hundred blossoms before it has collected a full load of nectar to take back to the hive, so it pays to have mass or block plantings of nectar-producing flowers around to attract it. Even so, it will shop around. For instance, after turning in at your garden because of the mass of asters blooming there, the visiting bee will look in on the snap bean patch, take in the cucumbers, and then perhaps the tomato vines.

Cucumbers, squash, melons, and the like require active pollinators around. So if your melon or squash patch isn't a big attractant in its own right, it helps to have other lures around.

Flowers massed at the edge of your vegetable patch will do the trick. Try to have early-, mid-, and late-season bloomers around so that bees visit your garden as routinely as truckers at a favorite diner.

Bees do not like working around flowers that are wet, so water early in the morning. That way the flowers will have dried off by the time the bees are out in force.

Compost-enriched, and ultimately humus-filled, soils produce flowers that are richest in sweet nectar. But beware of the heavy application of artificial fertilizers.

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