Farmers, gardeners and conservationists all sometimes clash on various issues such as pesticide use, wild animal control and other topics. However, one thing that we are all in agreement on is that we need to protect and preserve our bee population.
Although bees are not our only pollinators, they are certainly at the top of the list. Flies, beetles, moths, bats, butterflies, wasps, birds, ants and others do their part too. Our whole ecosystem depends on pollination; flowers and plants need it to set seed, we need seed to produce crops, crops to harvest to feed us all.
Pollination is vital to nearly 250,000 species of flowering plants that depend on the transfer of pollen from the flower anther, the part of the plant where pollen is produced to the stigma, the part where the pollen germinates to produce crops. Production of more than 90 crops depend on bee pollination and this translates directly to more dollars for farmers. Bees have been hailed as “flying dollar bills buzzing over Unites States crops”, because their pollination accounts for 15 billion dollars in added crop value.
Of course, from the bees’ point of view, their main concern is not contributing to our resources, but rather it is in protecting their own. Most of a bee’s life is spent collecting pollen, their source of protein needed to sustain them and to raise their young.
When a bee lands on a flower, tiny hairs on their legs and body attract pollen grains through electrostatic forces. Stiff hairs on their legs let them groom the pollen into specialized pockets on their body and carry it back to the nest.
Individual bees focus on one kind of flower at a time, making it more likely that the pollen from one flower will be transferred to another flower of the same species by a particular bee. Many plant varieties require this kind of pollination, known as cross pollination, to produce viable seeds. Thus, we have healthy plant reproduction.
North America’s Native Bees
In the United States there are more than 4,000 species of native bees. Contrary to popular belief, the honeybee is not native to North America. European settlers brought the first colony of honey bees to Virginia in 1622 and it has since become our most common pollinator and the most important bee to domestic agriculture. One third of our food comes from crops pollinated by bees.
Honey bees produce six products, honey, beeswax, pollen, royal jelly, propolis and venom which are valued for their nutritional and medicinal properties. The USDA estimates that bees made 157 million pounds of honey in 2019. Beeswax is used in the production of candles, some artists’ materials, leather and wood polishes, and in pharmaceuticals as a binding agent and time release mechanism.
However, despite these impressive contributions, the greatest importance of honeybees is their work as pollinators, estimated to be 10 to 20 times the total value of honey and beeswax combined. On top of this, wild bees play a vital role also. The supply pollinator services of the Eastern bumblebee are valued at $390 per acre alone while wild and domestic bees contribute an average of $1,215 in pollinator services per acre of crops.
Bees Under Threat
As important as these buzzing little friends are though, both wild and managed bee communities have been declining over the last half of the century because of increased pesticide use, changes in climate and changes in land use resulting in less food and nesting resources for them.
This is sad news for all of us because, if we lose them, we lose our crops and food supply. The good news is that, by making a few small changes, we can make a big difference in their survival. Just a few ways that we can help the little fellas and invite them to our yards and gardens are:
How You Can Help: Plant the Right Plants
Perennials. All bees rely on blooming plants to feed on and they need a steady supply from spring through fall. Hands down, perennials provide the highest quality of nectar and pollen. However, many of them have short blooming times whereas annuals bloom all season long. To ensure color all season for you and all- season food for the bees, plant a mixture of perennials and annuals.
Early flowering. They have a hard time finding food in late winter and early spring. Plant trees and shrubs like redbuds, willows, maples and vernal witch hazel to flower early. Early blooming fruits like cherry, plum, raspberry and blackberry give you a jump on fresh fruits and also provides bees with food. Don’t forget perennials like larkspur, dianthus, wild columbine and spring-flowering bulbs.
Mid- and late-season flowers. Mid-season coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, cleome, bee balm and daisies are just a few that fill the gap between spring and fall. Late season dahlias and asters finish the year.
Herbs like sage, thyme, lavender, chives, dill, basil, oregano, rosemary and mint flower and will also drive pollinators to other surrounding plants.
Think variety. They prefer some types of flowers over others. Some have long tongues and can easily access nectar in tubular-shaped blossoms like honeysuckle and columbine. Those with shorter tongues like daisies, asters and sunflowers. The smaller bees prefer smaller flowers and vice versa. By planting a mixture of different flower shapes and sizes, you will attract different bee species to your space.
Single-flowering. Double flowering varieties have less pollen and are harder for bees to access. Zinnias are a good example. They come in single and double flowering heads and the single ones are much easier for bees to feed on.
Consider color. Flower color matters too. Bees can’t see red; hummingbirds and butterflies are more drawn to red blooms. Bees navigate to purple, blue, white and yellow blooms.
Prioritize natives. Pollinators like native plants over non-native ones because they have co-evolved together. Native varieties are adapted to a region and are usually low maintenance and easy to find. Nativars, which are fancy forms of native plants, are not as attractive or useful to bees as other species. Some cultivars, over time, have lost fragrance, pollen, nectar and the flower shape that pollinators need. Remember, too, that hybridized plants that are bred to be sterile or not to contain nectar are useless to bees.
Provide Shelter for Bees
Rolling vegetation and stumps are great places for bees to set up housekeeping. If you can, leave some meadow-like spaces in the yard and garden. If you plant white clover, you not only provide housing for them, but also another food supply. Small brush piles with leaves provide a good place for bees to make a hive. Plain patches of dirt that can become mud with rains are good for the species that live underground.
Check with your local county extension office because many regions have programs that will offer compensation for setting space aside and planting a pollinator garden.
You can also build or buy special houses for bees.
Bees Need Water
Bees need water to drink and to bathe in too. When nature doesn’t provide water, people often think they can use their bird baths. Bees have a hard time with these because of the deep water. They need something shallower so they can walk to the edge. Lining the edges of a wide shallow dish with flat rocks and then pouring water over the rocks into the dish works fine.
Bees are largely responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat, the fruits and vegetables we grow, the abundance of farmers’ crops and the flowers that make our world more delightful. It only takes a little effort to attract and feed these small creatures that are so vital to our very lives. Let’s invite bees to co-exist with us.
Lois Hoffman is a freelance writer and photographer covering rural living with more than 20 years of experience, contributing to Successful Farming, Country, and Farm & Ranch Living. She lives on a 37-acre hobby farm in Michigan. Read all of Lois’ GRIT posts here.
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