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How doth the busy little bee

My mother quoted that verse of Isaac Watts’ poem repeatedly as a reminder to us that hard work has its rewards. The bee, like the ant, has always been an emblem of exertion, productivity, planning, and organization.

I saw my first honeybee of the year a few days ago. There was a time when I could walk into my garden and be deafened by the chorus of buzzing. Then came a silent summer when there were no bees at all. They’d been devastated by a killer mite. The following year, a new breed arrived, little hard-backed things, almost mean, defensive, as strangers can be when they aren’t sure where or how welcome they are.

Honeybees are liminal creatures, as if they are partially domesticated. “My” bees have always been friendly. They never sting unless I step on them or accidentally grab them when I reach for a flower (mud quickly applied to the wound is the best remedy). The tough new little bees eventually learned that there is no threat.

Now several kinds of bees have come back to the garden, partly thanks to local beekeepers. Each year we get a few of the massive “humble bee,” as the bumble bee was once called. Still, the clamorous chorus is not restored; the bees’ numbers are nothing like they used to be. Worldwide, bees are dwindling at an alarming rate. And because of their devastation, I grow as much as possible that will attract them, feed them, help them return to health and to thrive.

Russian sage is especially popular.

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Bees are increasingly vulnerable to bad weather and everywhere besieged by pesticides. What will happen when they’re gone? In China, apple and pear farrmers are now pollinating their trees by hand. About 75 percent of all flora require pollination by bees and sometimes by butterflies, birds, bats, and even flies. We can’t survive without bees and yet they are disappearing.

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