Where are the bees?

I expected to be battling the elements while trying to get a vegetable garden going in the Texas heat, but I’ve run into a challenge I didn’t expect: there are few, if any, bees pollinating our otherwise well-tended plants. I’ve watched countless blossoms—pepper, tomato, eggplant, squash—bloom, die, and fall off the plants instead of producing the vegetables we’d been hoping for. There have been lots of stories online and elsewhere about the disappearance of bees, but I can (sheepishly) say that this is the first time I’ve felt the immediacy of the situation. We’ve been watching the garden through the window, reporting possible bee sightings to each other, only finding that most of the time they’re actually other insects. Where the heck are the bees? Is it cell phones? The nearby freeway? Our tomato plants aren’t good enough? Did they notice that I slipped in a hybrid grape tomato plant among the heirlooms? Are they snubbing the free city compost, since we didn’t get our pile going early enough this year? It’s sort of comforting to know that the disappearance of bees has occurred cyclically for a long time—but it’s alarming to imagine the ripple effect if they didn’t, for some reason, recover. Several weeks ago, after watching the most gorgeous purple eggplant blossoms shrivel up and die, I took matters into my own hands. Looking around for a small paintbrush—and eventually settling on an eyeshadow brush—I set out to do a little pollinating myself, carefully brushing each open blossom. I’m happy to report that we now have two robust little deep purple Japanese eggplants, and two burgeoning Roma tomatoes. Considering that there are more than a dozen plants in the bed, that’s not a whole lot, but it’s progress. It seems that I make a second-rate bee. In looking for suitable replacements, I came across this nesting block that is supposed to attract bees, so that might be the next step. But as the gardening “necessities” add up—a no-stink urban compost tumbler, a rain barrel with a screen to keep mosquito breeding to a minimum, a $25 bee house, and a fence to keep the dog and kids out, these efforts are beginning to feel like The $64 Tomato (well worth a read)—only without all the great produce.