You’ve most likely heard that disaster is heading our way in the form of bee populations declining, but not everyone knows exactly why this is bad or what they can do to help. Hopefully this article will help you understand the importance of bees (and other natural pollinators) and give you some ideas on what you can do to help bees, and save the planet.
The reason bees are considered so important is because they are natural pollinators, taking pollen from the male part of the plant (anther) to the female part (stigma) and triggering the formation of the fruit, seed or nut. Some plants can pollinate themselves, but others rely on animals to help them reproduce which is why natural pollinators are so important. Bees are especially good at this job because they tend to visit the same plant species in one outing, leading to an even distribution of pollen from other plants of the same species instead of randomly spreading pollen to different plants, in other words their pollination is of higher quality.
Bees are able to pollinate so well due to certain characteristics such as stiff hairs that catch pollen and leg pockets that store it, allowing for efficient transportation from plant to plant. They are responsible for pollinating around one sixth of the planet’s flowering plant species and approximately 400 types of agricultural plant. This is an extraordinary amount, experts suggesting that bees are responsible for around one third of everything we eat!
Now we know why bees are so important for the planet, why do they need saving? There are several factors that have led to huge drops in global bee populations that are threatening the environment and our very existence. Without bees doing the work of pollinating plants, humans would have to step in to do it manually, yes that’s right manually, which simply wouldn’t be possible. Imagine how much time, money and how many people it would take to use small brushes to pollinate food plants in the US alone each year, food prices would soar as availability dropped and starvation would follow. Even Albert Einstein appears to have commented on the issue saying:
“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”
So what is causing bees populations to drop?
The term CCD, colony collapse disorder, is used to describe the death or disappearance of bees from a hive and has become a major concern for governments. After several studies, evidence suggests that a combination of factors are affecting bees:
- Shrinking habitats: As more and more land is used for development, bee habitats and foraging space is obviously being destroyed. Bees rely on large areas to forage, flying up to three miles from the hive in search of food. The problem is that large areas of wild plants and trees are destroyed for humans to build, and every time the space needed by the bees is taken away.
- Poor nutrition: Farms are becoming monocultures of commodity crops such as wheat and corn which provide very little in the way of nutrition for bees, meaning the hive cannot be sustained; bees are literally starving to death. Also in attempts to maximise honey yields (especially in the US), the entire stock of honey is removed and replaced with cheaper high fructose corn syrup for the bees to eat during the winter. Honey contains all the nutrients, including bee specific hormones and enzymes, that are needed for the bees to remain healthy and boost their immune system against the viruses and parasites that now threaten them.
- Parasites and viruses: One of the most destructive parasites are Varroa mites which are closely associated with CCD on a large scale. They are resistant to pesticides and have been a cause for concern since the 1980s. Chemical giant Monsanto hastily introduced chemicals to combat parasites and viruses, but instead made the problems worse. They produced an insecticide called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) derived from genetically modified corn which affected the bees, breaking down the stomach walls and essentially stopping them eating. This caused bees to become extremely weak and vulnerable to viruses and parasites, however powerful lobbying from powerful chemical companies such as Monsanto has kept these chemicals in use (even today) causing the continued destruction of bee populations worldwide.
- Insecticides, pesticides and fungicides: Carrying on from the previous point, harmful insecticides are still being used in large quantities. Designed to kill off ‘pests’ that attack crops, these chemicals also kill off other insects, including bees. Chemicals such as neonicotinoids cause acute poisoning that destroys the central nervous system of bees, affecting entire hives even when used at what are considered ‘safe levels’. Bees take contaminated nectar back to the hive causing extreme toxicity and vulnerability to viruses and parasites which then spread. As said in the previous point however, these chemicals continue to be used due to the influence of the likes of Monsanto who place profits before lives.
As you can see bees are facing terrible issues thanks to human influence, so now we need to make changes to avoid their extinction. The effort must be made from both bottom up and top down action, but this affects us all so do your bit to help bees!
Top 10 Tips to Help Bees
- Plant bee friendly plants: Providing bees with forage is a great way to give them a helping hand. The best way to do this is plant patches of specific flowering plants (I will provide a list of examples below) since bees like volume of forage, a sq. meter is a good estimate. Avoid horticultural plants that are double or multi-petalled, these usually have extra petals instead of anthers, and bees prefer flowers that are blue, purple or yellow. Don’t forget that many plants we consider weeds, such as clover, are actually perfect to help bees, so letting your lawn or garden live a little can be a huge help. Here are some examples of plants that bees like:
- Achilliea millefolium (Yarrow)
- Verbena spp. (Verbena)
- Rosemarinus officinalis (Rosemary)
- Salvia spp. (Sage)
- Lavandula spp. (Lavender)
- Helianthus spp. (Sunflower)
- Aster spp. (Aster)
- Borago officinalis (Borage)
- *Remember to buy seeds or plants that aren’t treated with pesticides, and if possible it is best to get native plants.*
- Plant Wildflowers: Set aside an area in your garden to allow wildflowers to grow freely, making sure to grow native plants. This will provide some excellent foraging spaces for the bees without taking much effort or space (unless you make your entire garden a wildflower paradise!). Certain grasses can be be quite resilient so you may have to opt for stronger plants such as Rhinanthus minor (Yellow Rattle) which can out-compete the grass. These areas are great not only to help bees, but many other insects and animals and can be quite a beautiful addition to any garden.
- Don’t Kill Bees! Many people get scared at the thought of bees because they don’t want to get stung (or may even be allergic) however we must understand that bees are not out to get you. Most bees are herbivores, and will not attack unless really provoked, and in fact will avoid doing so since they will die if they sting a human. Stay calm and still if a bee is around or lands on you, they will detect both the carbon dioxide from breath (usually someone screaming or shouting) and pheromones released with fear or anger that can stress out the bee and cause them to attack. However for the most part simply trying not to get in the bees’ way as much as possible by avoiding entrances to hives or paths to plants is the best way; don’t get in their way and they will leave you alone. The insects to look out for are actually things like wasps and hornets etc. that are carnivores and are much more likely to sting you and are attracted by things like sugary drinks.
- Provide Habitats and Help: Many people are now familiar with the concept of ‘bug hotels’ and the like, but did you know these are great for bees too? A friend asked me recently how these could help bees “because bees live in hives”, this is true but there are many species of bees that are solitary. They usually burrow underground or into wood to lay their eggs and spend their time foraging alone, so providing a safe place for them to stay is a great way to help (and making a bug hotel can be very fun). Don’t forget that bees need water too, so put out a shallow bowl or basin of water with some stones in for the bees to crawl on and let them have a drink, they’ll thank you!
- Don’t Use Pesticides: As you read before chemicals can have disastrous effects on bee health, so avoid using chemicals on your garden especially when plants are flowering. Chemicals may be an easy way to make your lawn or garden look pristine (and unnatural if you ask me) but they are causing terrible damage to wildlife. Try to find organic, chemical free methods of pest control to avoid causing damage and attract lots of pollinators.
- Try to buy local, organic produce: Farms that supply supermarkets use huge amounts of chemical pesticides and monocultural methods to meet demands, and as we have seen these are some of the main reasons behind bee population loss. So by trying to buy produce from local farmers that you can verify whether the food is coming from a monoculture or not you can avoid personally contributing to destructive farming. This is also a great way to contribute to your local community and reduce your food miles. You can also grow your own fruit and vegetables, which is a very rewarding project! Obviously if you aren’t vegan yet, buying honey from local raw honey is the best but not consuming honey at all would be better (you won’t add to global demand or exploit bees for their food).
- Allow Your Vegetables to Bolt: Allow a few leafy vegetables to ‘bolt’ (go to seed) after harvest. Seeding plants are the best for bees stocking up on food before the colder parts of the year. Unlike wasps that die out, bees just slow down and wait for Spring so make sure you help them gather supplies and they’ll be much better equipped to last.
- Spread the Word: One of the best ways we can help is by educating others; sharing your knowledge can have a ripple effect and do so much more good. Many people are only vaguely aware of the issues at hand, so spreading the word can alert them to the problems and kick them into action. You can share with friends and family, or even take the initiative to educate your local community as long as people are made more aware you are doing a great job. Children need to be shown that compassion is the key and shown that they can help, they are the ones who will carry these thoughts on and avoid making the same mistakes.
- Tell Councils and Governments That Bees Need Our Help: Not all the effort has to come from us at a household level, in fact top down pressure from councils and governments is necessary to change policies and make the world a friendlier place for bees. You can write letters, sign or start petitions and campaign to help natural pollinators, because when people stop calling for change the councils and governments will ignore the problems and allocate funding elsewhere. Only by fighting hard can we ensure the future of bees and thus the environment (and ourselves!).
- Consider Learning to Become a Beekeeper With Sustainable Practices: You can actually take beekeeping courses, as long as they are sustainable practices, and directly look after hives yourself. You can obviously keep bees without harvesting honey, which is great for vegans, but you have to learn about splitting hives etc. Although another option is to keep Mason bees which are solitary, don’t produce honey or wax, are resistant to Varroa mites and are excellent pollinators.
So now you know a little more about bees, why they are important, what the issues are and a few ways to protect them. As I said before one of the important aspects of fighting to help bees is to share knowledge and awareness, so share this article and do your best to protect the pollinators!