Where has all the bee habitat gone?
Grassland prairies in the United States, once rich habitats supporting pollinators and wildlife, are now functionally non-existent. Recent surveys suggest close to a 99.9% loss over the last 150 years, primarily due to increasing agricultural intensification. Similar losses are occurring in other ecosystems that once supported pollinators throughout the world. In the United Kingdom, roughly 97% of native wildflower habitats have been lost since the 50s for the same reason.
Plant native flowers and flowering trees and shrubs
Providing habitat for bees is one of the most critical actions you can take to help bees of all kinds right away. Plant a variety of flowers to provide blooms throughout the year. Focus on native plants, to which local pollinators are already adapted. If you do grow exotic ornamentals, focus on “simpler” flower forms rather than highly hybridized varieties (for example, bees have no problem with “dog roses”, but they can’t get inside the “double” varieties with extra petals). Don’t forget about flowering trees such as apples, plums, pears, and cherries (and bushes like blueberries) if you have the space. Even blackberries (kept in check!) make excellent sources of food for bees when in flower.
Even if you have a lawn, it’s easy to improve it for bees
You’d be surprised at what will turn up if you simply stop mowing (if you have a lawn, that is). Clovers are especially good in lawns, and the white variety flower at a lower height than the red, so you can still mow occasionally (at your mower’s highest setting) if you choose. Dandelions are a bee’s best friend! Because they show up so early each spring, and flower throughout spring, summer, and into fall, it is important to leave them for the bees. Dandelions provide abundant nectar and pollen that is easily accessible to a wide range of bees (different types of bees have different tongue lengths, restricting their flower choices to some extent). Also leave some sunny, bare soil (or short-mowed grass) for ground-nesting bees.
Bee careful where you buy plants and seeds
Make sure to ask your nursery or seed provider whether the plants or seeds you plan to buy have been pretreated with any pesticides. Pretreatment is still common, particularly with systemic pesticides such as neonicotinoids, which are implicated in bee deaths worldwide. Avoid using any pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides in your garden, and encourage others in your community to do the same.
Support bee habitat elsewhere by buying organic
Another way you can help improve pollinator habitat is by choosing local and organic foods, thus supporting healthy agricultural practices instead of vast, chemically-soaked plant monocultures. Not only will you, your family, and your bees be avoiding the health effects of these chemicals, you will also send perhaps the only message the agrochemical companies (Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, DOW Agro, BASF, and Pioneer/Dupont) will hear: a loss of profits due to their own short-sighted corporate practices.
Creating your own bee haven
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation provides fantastic resources for creating, restoring, and managing pollinator habitat in North America (adaptable to other places too):
- Pollinator Resource Center (plant lists)
- Providing Nest Sites for Pollinators (homes for bees)
- Establishing Pollinator Meadows from Seed (if you have a decent-sized spot)
- Seed Mix Calculator (for calculating seed quantities for large meadow projects)
- 100 Plants to Feed the Bees (handbook with plant profiles and planting tips)
- Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies (book)
Having trouble with invasive plant species? One promising method is to enlist aggressive native plants!
Offering homes for bees
Although people often think of bee homes as the hive boxes provided by beekeepers for their honey bees, the majority of bee species nest in the ground, in wood, or in dried stems. Bumble bees (which also build larger nests with more individuals including a queen and workers) favor old mouse burrows in the ground. But most of the other 25,000 or so bee species are solitary, so it’s up to individual female bees each to provision a nest for their offspring.
Mason bees are solitary bees that people like to manage for orchard pollination. They like to nest in holes, and they seal their nests with mud. Sometimes you will see commercially available mason bee boxes, and there are various designs from which to choose, or on which to base your own DIY designs. One thing to watch out for is the ability to manage these nests… it really helps to be able to open them up and clean each of the nesting cavities so as to avoid the spread of parasites (which love bee boxes too!) If you do drill holes in wood (in such a way that the holes cannot be cleaned), be sure to put out fresh wood with holes the following year to avoid parasites and infections building up.
If you’re interested in a neat DIY project (especially fun for children), learn How to Make and Manage a Bee Hotel: Instructions that Really Work