Why are bees in trouble?
Many pollinators are disappearing at alarming rates, especially native bees (such as bumble bees and solitary bees). Honey bees are also in trouble these days, with beekeepers reporting heavy winter and even summer losses.
The solution to pollinator health is not a simple one. Pesticides are weakening pollinator immune systems, leaving them more open to diseases and parasites. Healthy food sources and places to nest are disappearing, with “pollinator deserts” replacing once abundant wildflower meadows. People are moving honey bees and bumble bees around commercially, narrowing their genetic diversity and spreading bee parasites and pathogens in the process.
Habitat loss, acute and chronic pesticide poisoning, diseases and parasites, increasing intensification of conventional farming, and even the impacts of climate change are all taking their toll on bee health. Many of our bees are sick, stressed, and undernourished. But everyone can help save bees!
Help bees in your garden, community plot… even a balcony
Plant native wildflowers and flowering shrubs in your backyards, communities, and workplaces. If you have room, trees such as apples, pears, plums, and cherries (and shrubs like blueberries) are excellent food sources for pollinators, as are many vegetables and herbs.
If you have a lawn, stop mowing some portion… you’d be surprised what flowers will drop in over time. Sow clover (white clover may even be mowed at highest setting). Let dandelions live! They’re one of the first pollen-rich sources to spring up, and also one of the last to go. Because of the shape and structure of dandelions, their pollen and nectar are especially accessible to a great diversity of bee species throughout the year.
Even small balcony gardens help pollinators passing by. Try adding hanging baskets, potted native plants, veggies/herbs, and a small dish of water with pebbles.
Offer more than just food for bees
Provide homes for native bees. Did you know that most bees nest in wood, dried stems, or in the ground? Provide bare, sunny soil for mining, sweat, and other ground-dwelling solitary bees. Offer wooden bee blocks, paper straws, or bundles of bamboo for mason, leaf-cutter, and other wood-cavity nesting solitary bees. For mason bees, make sure there’s a source of mud nearby in early spring.
Keep part (or all!) of your garden untidy, which makes more room for wildlife. Pieces of wood in a pile provide shelter and a place for some solitary bees to nest. Dead plant stems are the perfect spots for the young of other native bees to overwinter. Leave a patch of closely-mown or bare soil in a sunny location, important for our many ground-nesting bees.
In summer, place a shallow dish of water out with some pebbles in it, so that bees (and other insects) can easily drink without drowning (bees get thirsty too, and honey bees use the water to help cool their hives on hot days).
Support pollinator-friendly farming
Support smaller, local, organic farms. Organic farms tend to support higher biodiversity and better bee health. There are industrial-scale organic farms that are still not great for the environment, however. Ideally, sustainable and resilient agroecological farming methods will replace current farming methods.
Agroecology takes an ecosystem perspective on food production, considering the complex ecological web of interactions—including soil health, water and air quality, integrated pest and disease control, and biodiversity. When you think about it, “conventional” industrial farming is a recent development—following on the Second World War—in a long history of human agriculture going back around 10,000 years.
Grow some of your own food. Flowering vegetables, fruits and herbs make excellent variety in pollinator diets. Tomatoes are especially easy and fun for children to grow, and are a great way to help bees, because there’s a dark secret to commercial tomatoes: growers frequently import bumble bees for pollination services (keeping them within their greenhouses). Not only are imported bumble bees implicated in the drastic decline of native bumble bees (when a few inevitably sneak out), but the queens are caged to prevent them forming new colonies, and all bumble bees are incinerated after 8 weeks of hard work. 😢
Buy certified organic cotton (even though you don’t eat it!) Cotton ranks among the highest in pesticide usage on crops, including a mix of pesticides and fungicides known to be dangerous to bees.
Love honey? Buy from local beekeepers who care about their honey bees (find them online or at farmers’ markets).
And just a few more ideas…
Participate in citizen science pollinator projects. Various projects will take you into the great outdoors, planting flowers, recording bee sightings, and looking for bee nesting sites. They’re fun projects to share with your family and your neighbors, to get everyone thinking about bees. And having citizen science records is proving incredibly useful for scientific research into helping bees!
Support current bills and other pollinator initiatives. There are a number of regulatory bills that directly or indirectly affect bee health. Voicing your support of these initiatives with your political representatives can help ensure a safer environment for bees, and also help raise the profile of bees in politicians’ minds.
Learn more about bees and the challenges they’re facing. They are amazing little creatures, and there are thousands of different kinds of bees, all with their own unique life stories. Spread the word to those around you!