It’s hard to escape the fact that bees are dying. Their fate is questioned in commercials and newscasts, and even on cereal boxes. But just because you hear about something doesn’t mean you understand it. After all, busy lives don’t leave much time for independent research. If you’ve heard about dying bees and are wondering what all the buzz about, this is for you.
Why are Bees Important?
Bees aren’t just another insect. Bees pollinate an enormous variety of flowering plants that includes around 70 crops humans rely on for food. Since pollination by bees increases crop yields, they’re a crucial element of the food system that brings us affordable, nutritious, and diverse foods. Beyond food crops, bees pollinate native plants like wildflowers and berry brambles, ensuring there’s food and shelter available for other wildlife species.
While people are most familiar with the domesticated honey bee, there are actually thousands of bee species that are just as important, if not more important than honey bees. While honey bees pollinate large commercial farms and produce honey, it’s native bee species that are nature’s most effective pollinators. With specialized species like the squash bee and orchard bee, native bees are focused, efficient pollinators for the plants they evolved alongside.
Why are Bees at Risk?
Native bees and honey bees alike are in danger. The decline of honey bee populations has gained significant attention as Colony Collapse Disorder leaves entire hives mysteriously empty. And while native bees don’t have a name for their dwindling populations, they’re suffering losses too: Over 700 native bee species in North America and Hawaii are losing numbers, and more than 300 are inching toward extinction.
It’s not one danger that threatens bee populations. Rather, it’s the cumulative effect of harmful land management techniques employed by humans. Large-scale commercial farms plant monocultural fields, creating acres upon acres without viable forage for bees. Farms, commercial developments, and residential areas alike apply pesticides that are devastating to bee mortality and reproduction rates. As urbanization grows, habitat is depleted and replaced with paved developments. With these practices destroying the environments bees call home, bees are struggling to survive.
How Can People Protect Bees?
Although bees are suffering significant losses, there’s still hope. If bee habitats can be restored and kept safe from dangerous chemicals, bee populations will have a chance to recover. While large-scale change will require involvement from the agricultural sector, there’s a lot that the average person can do to make a difference.
Discontinuing the use of insecticides and herbicides around homes and businesses keeps available nectar and pollen sources safe for bees. Purchasing food from farmers who eschew chemical inputs in favor of biodiversity lets industrial agriculture know you disapprove of their environmentally-harmful practices. And buying locally-sourced honey supports the local beekeepers doing their part to sustain bee populations.
While these measures can make a big difference, there’s more that can be done. Homeowners and renters with a small patch of yard or patio space can install a garden designed to serve as a wildlife habitat. Known as a pollinator garden, these spaces provide food, shelter, and water to pollinators like bees and butterflies.
Pollinator gardens are easy to get started. They need a variety of flowering plant species, including both broad- and narrow-leafed plants, plants with different colors and shapes of blooms, and plants that bloom at different times. A diverse assortment maximizes the number of pollinator species attracted to the garden and ensures there’s food available in spring, summer, and winter. Gardeners limited on space can maximize bloom time by staggering plantings so that once a plant dies, it’s replaced with a new seedling. New gardeners can pick up seedlings and soil amendments from a nearby nursery or garden center to get expert information on the right way to start a garden in their climate.
No matter how busy you are, find time to make changes to help the world’s bees. It’s not only good for the environment, it’s good for you, your family, and society at large.