The snow is melting, the days are getting longer, the birds are chirping, and the bees are re-emerging from hibernation to pollinate our flora. Hopefully. Whether we recognize it or not, bees are the thankless providers of countless hours of labor that help our environment, especially agriculture. The BBC estimates that one third of all edible crops around the world are made possible due to the pollination efforts of bees. They are responsible for pollinating more than 400 different varieties of crops, and their contributions to the economy are estimated a whopping half billion dollars per year. The little-recognized warriors work tirelessly through the warm months to provide the foundation for so much vegetative growth around the world. No one should underestimate the importance of bees.
“What exactly is pollination and why are bees so important?” you might ask. Pollination occurs when pollen particles are transferred from a male plant to a female plant, effectively beginning the process of fertilization, therefore allowing the plant to produce its crops. While pollination can occur as a result of wind, or by the help of other animals, bees are one of the most successful and important players in the pollination game. And they are dying at increased rates.
According to this news source, between 2015 and 2016 US beekeepers saw colony populations decrease by an alarming 44%. That’s nearly half of the population. The 2006 bee season saw colony population losses averaging 60%. What’s the cause of this unfortunate and sometimes seemingly unpredictable event? While a singular cause has not been identified, certain trends around the world have all been indicated in the unfortunate demise of this extremely necessary element of the ecosystem. Widespread use of pesticides, climate change, invasive species, diseases, and habitat loss have all been detrimental to the success and survival of bee populations the world over.
Pesticides are of particular concern to the bee colonies. While pesticides in our food are something to take into consideration on their own, the role they can play in the upset of the colonies can be a double edge sword. While many pesticides have been claimed to be “safe” for humans, in very few cases are the effects of these same pesticides known for bees. This means that a bee can unknowingly come in contact with pesticide contaminated pollen, take it back to the hive, thus infecting and killing many more members of the population. If a pesticide doesn’t cause direct harm to the health of the bees, it can sometimes act as a repellent, effectively making the bees less successful at their job of pollination.
What You Can Do to Help Save the Bee Population
Don’t use pesticides: Taking conscious steps to help mediate the impact of our activities on our fuzzy flying friends is absolutely vital to their success. What can you do to help? One of the most helpful things you can do to help our bees starts right inside your own yard. It is critical to not use pesticides, insecticides or weedkillers in your garden as they cause severe damage to the honeybee system that is trying to pollinate your plants. The EPA urges people to try to solve their lawn-related pest problems without pesticides. Here is a great resource for more tips on maintaining a pesticide free garden.
Keep the weeds: Having a yard that is full of “weeds” like clover and dandelions is a beneficial haven for the honeybees. Many of the wildflowers that get classified as weeds are an important food source for native North American bees. So let your lawn live a little!
Support organic farming: By purchasing organic produce and other organic foods you are supporting the farmers that have gardening practices that are not harmful to our bee population. Organic farmers use natural and pollinator-friendly methods to grow our foods and stay away from synthetic pesticides which have been shown to harm bees. Buying local can be a great way to support bee-friendly practices as well. Not everyone can afford an organic certification so get to know your local farmers via the local farmers market and learn more about what they use to grow their food.
Buy natural and ethical bee products: If you choose to utilize bee products like beeswax and honey, make sure they are ethically and naturally sourced. If the honey is smuggled in from china don’t buy it. Although the commercial sourcing of honey and other bee products may be attributing to the bee decline, smaller beekeepers that have ethical beekeeping standards are beneficial when it comes to keeping our bee population alive. Purchasing local honey is best and going to farmers’ markets can be a great place to meet local beekeepers and learn about their beekeeping practices. If sourcing local honey from a trusted supplier is not any option, consider purchasing organic honey as those bees forage on certified organic blooms that have not been sprayed with bee-killing pesticides. Another good thing to look for on the label is pure raw unfiltered honey it helps assure you get the real stuff as honey is one of the most faked foods.
Plant bee friendly plants: Another helpful (and fun) activity is to plant pollinator-friendly flowers and plants. These plantings will look beautiful, will help stimulate bee populations, and can even be useful in your own home cooking. A few examples of pollinator-friendly flora are; butterfly bush, oregano, sunflower, lion’s tail, lavender, and salvia, among many others. For a more in-depth resource on how to plant a bee friendly garden, check out this article on planting a bee garden. It is important when creating a bee garden to keep it away from walkways or places people congregate as you do not want the bees to be disturbed. You can also create a bee watering station as bees become thirsty when they work and need access to safe water sources.
Call beekeepers about bees: If you notice you do have any issues with bees in your yard, knowing was steps to take to have them successfully removed unharmed is crucial. Contact a local beekeeper vs calling pest control or an exterminator. Most of the time beekeepers will want the bees for their own hive and safely remove them from your property. If you see a swarm, contact the National Swarm Reporting Hotline which will get you in touch with local beekeepers who will come out and remove the swarm for their own colony at no expense to the person who called.
Become a beekeeper: Although this step is not for everyone, if you find that you are really into honey and bees maybe consider taking up beekeeping yourself. There are a lot of things to consider before doing this, of course, so before you decide check out this article on beekeeping as a hobby.
Avoid the bee sting: Bees are not out to get you! Most bee species are mild mannered and usually won’t go after you unless you pose a threat. In fact, if they do sting you they will probably die so it is best not to provoke them. To avoid getting stung, stay out of the pathway between them and a hive opening or a concentration of flowers they are working on. If bees come near you or land on you, do your best to stay calm, never swat at them but you may be able to blow them away. Here are some more tips to avoid being stung. It is also a good idea to leave an area with lots of bees quickly if they seem to be coming near you or bumping into you. In the rare occurrence you somehow provoked a swarm to come after you the best thing to do is run. Learn to spot the difference between bees and wasps as wasps do not die from stinging you so they can sting multiple times and are far more aggressive then bees. Wasps are carnivores and it is normally wasps that hanging around your lunch meat at a picnic. Here is a good visual article on how to tell the difference between bees and wasps some key characteristics to look out for are bees tend to be hairy and wasps tend to be pinched in at the waist. If you are allergic to bees or wasps take extra precautions.
Sponsor a Beehive: Also known as adopting a hive it is a specific way to contribute money towards a beehive at a specific location or to contribute beehives to smaller beekeepers. It can also be a way to donate money to bee research and preservation. Here are 5 reasons to Sponsor-A-Hive by HoneyBee Conservancy which has their own donation program. BeeSanctuary.org also has their own sponsorship program for placing beehives in a community. A online search for sponsoring or adopting a beehive and your location may turn up some great options as well to adopt a hive to support a local beekeeper. Some like Frangiosa Farm’s Adopt-a-Bee program even sweeten the deal by throwing in some honey!
Spread the message of saving bees: A great way to save the bees is to spread the message of how to do that so please share this post with other people you know so we can all do our part in saving the bees! Another great way to spread the message is watching and sharing documentaries on bees like More than Honey, Queen of the Sun, Vanishing of the Bees, and The Last Beekeeper.
These tips will hopefully keep the bees near you happy and healthy and lead to a more complete and healthy ecosystem for us all!
– Sarah Ferguson, blog contributor