Why are bees in trouble?
Many pollinators are disappearing at alarming rates (including honey bees, bumble bees, and other native bees). The solution to pollinator health is not a simple one. Pesticides are weakening pollinator immune systems, leaving them more open to parasites and pathogens. Healthy food sources 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 diseases and parasites in the process.
How can I help?
- Say no to pesticides (insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides).
- Plant native wildflowers and flowering shrubs and trees 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.
- Even small balcony gardens and hanging baskets can help bees!
- 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).
- Leave a patch of closely-mowed or bare soil in a sunny location (important for our many solitary ground-nesting bee species).
- Let dandelions live! They’re one of the first pollen-rich sources to spring up, and also one of the last to go. Their pollen and nectar are especially accessible to a great diversity of bee species throughout the year.
- Grow some of your own food! Flowering vegetables, fruits and herbs make for excellent variety in pollinator diets.
- Support smaller, local, organic farms. Organic farms support higher biodiversity and better bee health.
- If you love honey, buy from local beekeepers (European honey bees are just one of around 25,000 species of bees worldwide).
- Provide homes for native bees (bee blocks for mason, leafcutter, and other wood-cavity nesting solitary bees, and bare sunny soil for mining, sweat, and other ground-dwelling solitary bees).
- Provide a source of damp soil in early spring (needed by mason bees), and offer a shallow dish of water with pebbles in summer.
- Support current bills and other pollinator initiatives, learn more about the issues facing pollinators, and spread the word to those around you!
A few words about pesticides
A certain class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids (neonics for short) have been shown to be particularly detrimental to bee health. At this point, the science is strong showing the field-realistic effects of these insecticides on a variety of bees including honey bees, bumble bees, and other wild bees. We will lose many of our valuable pollinators if we continue to apply these pesticides indiscriminately (not to mention those who depend on them higher up the food chain, humans included)! Note that these insecticides are often used by homeowners as well as farmers, and even the “bee-friendly” plants you buy at nurseries may be pre-treated. Avoid these pesticides by buying only certified organic seeds and plants.
One of the biggest issues with pesticides is that they compromise bee health at a time when our pollinators are already suffering from so many stressors. Once flower-rich, diverse prairies and meadows have been transformed into sterile monocultures soaked in a variety of agrochemicals. So often, pesticides are mixed (in “tank mixes”) so that many can be applied at once, however the safety of these (to the extent we even have proper safety information) is only ever assessed one chemical at a time. Chemically, these things react, most often forming even more toxic substances (fungicides, for instance, often increase the potency of other insecticides applied with them).
Like any other creature, bees benefit from a diverse diet, and they have certain needs in terms of habitats in order to complete their life cycles. Honey bees live in hives typically tens of thousands strong, most often having their needs taken care of by beekeepers. But beekeepers are struggling to keep them healthy in ever-more degraded environments. Mason bees are also “managed” by people as they are fantastic orchard pollinators. But the majority of our bees are native bees, which so often receive no help at all (instead facing a constant onslaught of problems such as poor quality food and few places to call home). Bumble bees and solitary ground-nesting bees are essential pollinators that are particularly impacted by pesticides and a lack of quality habitat.
A few words about Zika
One of the most alarming recent developments is that individuals and governments, understandably fearful of mosquito-borne viruses such as zika, dengue, and chikungunya, are turning to pesticides for solutions. The GOP have just tried to relax vital pesticide restrictions for waterways, when the two Aedes mosquito species (the ones that serve as vectors for these diseases) do not even use such waterways for breeding. Too many stores, brick/mortar and online alike, are pushing the latest personal insecticides and foggers with which to use them. Pest control companies, eyeing new profits, have been quick to rush in with the latest deals on professional pest elimination services. The insecticides we currently have are not precise or targeted. They kill insects of all kinds, good and bad alike, persist in soils, and drain into waterways, killing land-based and aquatic invertebrate life and threatening all life which depends on it.
Instead, it would be prudent to understand these specific mosquitos, whose chosen breeding grounds are much smaller bodies of water, such as one finds in empty beer and soda cans, old tires, discarded containers, uncleaned house gutters, etc. Eliminating these breeding grounds is far more effective than blanket spraying of potent toxins, which have so many broad-reaching impacts on our local biodiversity and ecosystems. Humans will likely adapt to bleaker, more sterile environments, but it’s not a pretty picture to imagine us hand-pollinating our crops (we’re far worse at it than bees!) And I don’t suppose any of us would be happy with a diet based primarily on wind-pollinated crops such as wheat and corn. Statistics suggest we have lost half the world’s wildlife in the last 40 years. Bee losses are increasing, with common bee species populations dropping dramatically in recent years. What we need are responsible agricultural practices (organic and agroecological), coupled with sensible gardening and public space maintenance. Anyone can help our bees by providing them safe places to feed and live, sharing information with neighbors and communities, and pushing grassroots efforts to change our society's farming practices.