Watch those bees

Pete Fandel
Pete Fandel
Woodford County Extension Service

Be Careful with those Bees

Recently, honey bees have come under a great deal of stress due to a relatively new malady called colony collapse disorder (CCD).  

“First reported in 2006, CCD is characterized by a sudden disappearance of most of the worker bees in a hive, leaving only the queen and a few attendants,” explains Doug Jones, University of Illinois Extension integrated pest management specialist.  “Some commercial bee keepers sustained losses of up to 90 percent of their hives.”                                          

Honey bees are one of the important pollinators that we as a species depend on for many of our favorite foods. Honey bees work cheap. They will work virtually non-stop just for a bit of nectar and pollen. In fact, they literally work themselves to death.

In as little as four weeks, their wings become so battered that they literally fall out of the sky and perish from the punishing schedule they keep. It has been estimated that honey bees fly 55 thousand miles in order to make just one pound of honey.

Honey bees are so important that they have been designated as the state insect in 18 states. Every time we bite into an apple, almond, cherry, squash or virtually any other fruit, a honey bee has been involved with its pollination. Other crops benefit as well; clover and alfalfa are among bee favorites. It has been estimated that honey bees have an impact on agriculture that exceeds $200 billion annually.

While honey bees are an important cog in our agricultural machine, they are actually very delicate creatures.

Their immune system is under-powered when compared to other insect species. As such, they are extremely susceptible to the pesticides we routinely apply. Some of the more egregious pesticides include the neonicotinoid class such as imidacloprid, thiamethoxam and clothianidin. These chemicals act on the insect’s central nervous system to cause paralysis and eventually death. Honey bees are susceptible to their actions.

How can you lessen the impact of these and other compounds on the honey bee population?

“When possible, don’t apply pesticides to plants that are in bloom, especially those that the bees are actively visiting,” advises Jones. “If feasible, use other methods rather than pesticides to control pests. Integrated pest management (IPM) is a common sense practice that can help. If you must apply a pesticide, always read the label and choose those chemicals that are less toxic to honey bees. The label will also provide information about how to apply so that you are not directly affecting the bee population.”

Another way to help is to provide suitable resources for the bees to flourish. Lawns are akin to a desert as far as the bees are concerned. We crop our grass short and clean; nothing is left to flower.  A good compromise might be to plant some clover in the yard and mow the grass at the highest mower setting. Or, you might stagger the mowing of the grass to allow parts of the yard/pasture to flower. 

Asparagus: Architectural and edible

Adding asparagus to a garden adds color and texture to the landscape, said University of Illinois Extension Horticulture Educator Barbara Bates.

“Asparagus is a perennial vegetable, along with rhubarb, horseradish, and sorrel.  Using perennial vegetables in the landscape is a great way to get a double bang for your gardening buck.  These plants can even provide a triple bang when you consider their that ever-increasing perennial nature gives you enough bounty to share with friends and family.”

Asparagus, a member of the lily family, performs best in full sun, in well-drained garden soils.  The abundant foliage makes a wonderful backdrop for blooming flowers, hostas, or small shrubs during the growing season. 

The foliage of asparagus reaches four feet in height.   The long, graceful stems wave in the wind, adding motion to the garden. 

“The stems can be used to support tall, leggy flowers or as filler in a cut flower arrangement,” she said.  “Rows of asparagus can serve as hedges and can even be sheared for a soft, formal appearance. 

“Interplanting small groups of asparagus with tall annuals that have airy foliage such as Cosmos or Purpletop Vervain (Verbena bonariensis) creates a cheerful composition.” 

Bates cautioned to be aware of annuals that self-seed and take appropriate preventive action if necessary.   

“After frost, the foliage of asparagus dries to a bright yellow,” she said.  “Dioecious species of plants including asparagus have both male and female plants, with female plants producing fruits.  Female asparagus plants produce red berries as fruits.

These eye-catching fruits can become a nuisance when they self-seed.  Male plants produce thicker spears and no seeds.” 

Asparagus takes three years to establish from crowns, so there is a bit of a wait until an abundant harvest. 

“Once established, plan to harvest a crop annually for 10 years or more,” she said.  “For this reason, it is best to give considerable thought to placement before planting. 

“In the third year after planting, harvest for one month only early in the season.  It is important not to overharvest and weaken the plants.  In subsequent years, plants will yield a crop for up to three months if harvested regularly.”  

“Thickness of the stems is not an indicator of flavor or age.” 

As asparagus is highly perishable,  it should be eaten or processed soon after harvest, she added.

Asparagus should be planted early in spring. Planting bare-root plants yields a crop sooner, but starting plants from seed allows more selection of varieties.   For a list of varieties recommended for Illinois, visit  

“Bare-root plants should have several buds at the crown, with ample, fleshy roots four to six inches in length,” she said. 

“When planting, space the crowns 12 inches apart and be sure to spread the roots out so they radiate evenly around the crown. The crown should sit above the roots and be two to three inches below the soil surface. 

“Asparagus may be planted in beds for mass production or in smaller groupings throughout the landscape.  This is the way the birds ‘plant’ it in ditches throughout the Midwest, providing more of a hunt-and-gather experience in your landscape.” 

When asparagus is planted in beds, weeding can become a challenge.  Perennial grasses and new asparagus plants that have been self-seeded can create competition from crowding. 

“Weeding is simplified and minimized when asparagus is planted in small groups throughout the landscape,” said Bates.  “Planting only male plants eliminates the concern of self seeding. 

“Asparagus is a member of the lily family and is grouped with grasses and many bulbs into the monocot group of plants.  This means that herbicides labeled as ‘grass killers’ can also harm asparagus.   Always read label directions carefully when applying herbicides, especially to food crops.” 

Spears of asparagus should be harvested when they are five to eight inches tall.  “The best way to harvest is to snap them off by bending them over at the base,” Bates said.  “This avoids damaging new spears that are just emerging.  Asparagus is very high in Vitamins A, Vitamin C and folates.  It should be refrigerated and eaten soon after harvest.”

Recipes are available on U of I Extension’s diabetes recipes Web site at