With the media these days full of scary stories about bees dying and what it will mean for our food production, everyone is in a “save the bees” frenzy, but not many people have any idea what concrete action they can take to help out. (In last week’s post, I did my best to clarify some misinformation that’s been circulating about bee decline. If this is a topic that interests you, it’s definitely worth a read.)
So, you want to save the bees? Here are five things you can do:
- Stop Killing The Bees
So, you’re probably not actively killing bees, but some things you do might be inadvertently killing them. Even if you don’t plan on doing anything else for the bees, you can make a huge difference by changing your grocery shopping habits and gardening organically.
If you read the news, you’ve probably heard about neonicotinoids and how they are bad for bees. You might be under the impression that neonics and other scary chemicals are mostly the domain of industrial farmers. This isn’t the case at all. Neonicotinoids are found in lots of pesticides meant for home use (like, the Advantage flea and tick stuff you might smear on your dog). Acre for acre, more pesticides and herbicides are used at homes than on farms. This makes sense when you think about it – farmers don’t use more chemicals than they need to because it cuts into profits. Joe Schmoe, on the other hand finds a dandelion in his lawn, buys a bottle of Roundup and dumps it in his yard without ever reading the label.
Don’t be Joe Schmoe. Most residential purposes don’t warrant using chemicals at all. For most any garden disaster, there’s a fantastic organic option that is as effective or more so than it’s chemical counterparts. If you don’t believe me, just ask Mike McGrath of You Bet Your Garden!
Even if you’re a die-hard organic gardener, if you’re eating conventional produce, you’re still supporting the use of toxic chemicals that harm bees. Every time you buy conventional food instead of organic, you’re also missing an opportunity to help bees (and people) by supporting more sustainable methods of food production. Think of every organic food purchase you make as a vote for a long-term shift to a healthier agriculture system.
Don’t just go to Whole Foods, though, everything there is crazy expensive, and I think that’s why most people don’t think they can afford to eat organically. A better way to shop is by finding a farmer’s market, CSA (Community supported agriculture), or food co-op near you. As long as you stick to seasonal foods and avoid packaged snack items, it won’t cost you an arm and a leg, and it will taste way better than conventional fare. The USDA Organic label makes it easy to identify good options, but some smaller food producers can’t afford the certification, even if they use organic methods. Shopping locally gives you the opportunity to learn about where your food is coming from and support small sustainable farms!
It might seem like I went on a bit of a tangent. Here I am writing about how to save the bees and then off I go on a rant about sustainable agriculture. However, they are two sides of the same coin. Our industrial agriculture system is causing a lot of damage to the environment (and to our health!) and if we aren’t working to improve it, we can yell “save the bees” till our faces turn blue and nothing is going to change.
That being said, If you aren’t spraying nasty stuff all over your house and are doing what you can to support sustainable agriculture, there are still a few other (arguably more fun) things you can do to help the bees!
- Feed The Bees
Like all living things, bees need food to survive. Bees eat pollen and nectar from flowers, so making sure that there are enough flowers available for bees throughout the season can do a lot to help support native bees, honey bees, and other pollinator species. Different species of bees prefer different types of flowers, and some species are “specialists” that only forage from a specific species of plant.
Choosing the right plants to feed the bees in your area is important, as is selecting plants that will grow well where you intend to plant them. So take your time and do a little research before you run out and buy plants or seeds! I always recommend that people plant native plants as much as possible – they tend to grow better without the use of fertilizers or other chemicals, and they provide much more support to local wildlife than imported varieties.
The Pollinator Partnership offers a great series of planting guides searchable by area code, you can check it out here. Your state extension program is another fantastic resource for suggestions of plants to grow, as well as advice on how to grow them.
If you’re the book-loving type, you can pick up a copy of the Xerces Society’s “100 Plants to Feed the Bees”.
Finally, here is a really great PDF that has a lot of info about attracting pollinators to you garden.
Which brings us to:
- Provide Habitat for Bees (and other pollinators!)
One of the biggest threats to native pollinators is habitat loss. Different species of bee have different nesting habits, so it’s worth doing a little research to figure out what works best for your “target bee demographic”. In the fabulous book “Bringing Nature Home“ Douglas Tallamy recommends leaving at least the edges of your proprty in a “natural state” by growing native plants and resisting the urge to clean away brush and debris.
Many solitary bees survive the winter by hibernating under leaves and other debris. So simply not tidying up your garden at the end of the year can provide shelter for a lot of beneficial insects, plus it’s a great excuse to skip all the extra work!
When planting, you may also wish to leave some ground clear for ground dwelling bees – these species dig special burrows in the ground, called “galleries”, in which they lay their eggs. With most species, the adult bees will die off by the fall. The eggs will hatch and pupate underground, then emerge the following Spring to begin the cycle again. Many ground bees tend to prefer sunny, dry patches of bare or lightly mulched soil.
Another way to create homes for bees is by setting up a “bee hotel”. They are sometimes also called insect hotels. There are many different types of bee hotels that cater to different species of bee (and some other beneficial insects) Many of them use paper tubes, cut reeds, or holes drilled into blocks of wood for solitary bees to lay eggs in. Other types provide straw or other nesting materials. Each style will be attractive to different types of insects, so you can either carefully research the type of bees you want to help, or simply try a variety and see who shows up.
If you like the bee hotel idea, Here is a fantastic guide to building and managing bee hotels.
- Support Groups Trying to Save Bees!
I am a huge believer that just one person can make a huge difference in the world, but even I can’t deny that when people get organized, they can do even more! There are some really fantastic groups out there working to help bees (as well as some sort of lame ones that don’t do much at all, so be careful!). Two of my personal favorites are:
- Spread the Word About How to Help Bees!
You are now armed with a lot of knowledge that you can use to help the bees, but imagine how much more you could do if there were two of you! Well, I haven’t figured out cloning just yet, but by passing your knowledge on to someone else, you can basically double the impact you have. If they then educate one more person and so on and so forth, we can change the world in no time flat. So get out there and tell everyone what they can do to save the bees!