Bees are one of the most important species in the world, crucial to food production and healthy ecosystems. Here’s how to help support and protect bees and other pollinators in your own garden.
Why Are Bees Important?
There are many different types of bee and they are present on every continent on earth apart from Antarctica. Honey bees, in particular, play pivotal roles in their environments.
According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, insects pollinate around 80 percent of all flowering plants. This pollination is crucial to the fertilization of much of our fruit, vegetables, and other crops. Bees themselves pollinate around a third of all food eaten by humans.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) says that bees are responsible for one out of every three bites of food consumed. Honey bees, in particular, pollinate approximately $15 billion worth of crops every year. Including over 130 different fruits and vegetables.
While other methods of pollination do exist, wild bees are one of the most important pollinating species because of the enormous scale on which they pollinate. But pollinators are also an essential part of a healthy environment, in general.
Honey bees are a keystone species. This means that they have a disproportionately important role in their ecosystem relative to their presence. The removal of any keystone species has a disproportionately significant impact on that ecosystem.
If bees were made extinct, we could potentially lose all the plants that bees pollinate so effectively. This, in turn, could impact all the other animals that eat those plants—and so on across the natural world.
Are Bees Endangered?
While bees aren’t facing extinction yet, their numbers are falling. A study published by Nature Communications revealed that in the UK, 33 percent of wild pollinators saw a decrease between 1980 and 2013.
A separate study, published in the Journal of Insect Conservation, found that American bumblebee populations fell by 89 percent between 2007 and 2016.
“During the past 50 years, the number of managed honey bees have declined,” says NRCS. “Each winter since 2006, about 30 percent of beehives collapsed because of disease, parasites, poor nutrition, pesticide exposure, and other issues.”
Habitat destruction is a key contributor to falling bee populations. According to the Woodland Trust, bee habitat is shrinking due to increasingly invasive farming methods and urban development. The future of bees is inextricably linked to the future of trees and other flora.
Many wild bee species nest in hollow trees, and deforestation has a huge impact on their numbers. Wildflower meadows and other diverse areas are also declining, leading to a reduction in the availability of flowering plants—a key food resource for bees.
The prevalence of insecticide in mainstream farming, climate change, and diseases also impact bee populations. Another key issue is colony collapse disorder (CCD). The little-known phenomenon is when all or most of a colony’s worker bees suddenly die. This affects commercial honeybees, which are used for both honey production and crop pollination.
According to animal rights charity Viva!, beekeeping and honey production make bees more susceptible to both disease and colony collapse disorder. The “managed” bees used in food production are often transported hundreds of miles, and many die during transport. This is particularly common in the production of California almonds.
How Can We Help Bees?
There are many ways to help protect the bee population in your own garden. Lockdown restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic have reduced people’s ability to visit beauty spots or travel outdoors. But many of those with outdoor space have turned to gardens, yards, and even window ledge planters to get outside.
1. Keeping Your Garden Wild
Letting at least a small section of your garden get “overgrown” by leaving it alone can benefit wildlife. Cutting your lawn less often, in general, and leaving a designated area to grow long can support a variety of plant species. It can also encourage birds and small mammals and support insects such as bees.
According to the Wildlife Trust, the less pristine a lawn is, the more inviting it is to wildlife. Cutting out harmful domestic pesticides—which can be just as harmful as the industrial counterparts—can also impact insect life.
2. Planting Wildflowers
Planting bee-friendly flowers in your garden encourages diverse wildlife. Bees favor a broad variety of flowering plants, many of which can be grown from seed packs. If you don’t have access to a private green space, then window boxes, raised beds, and public green spaces are perfect for wildflowers.
Environmental NGO Friends of the Earth offers a comprehensive, seasonal guide to bee-friendly plants and flowers. Bees are active throughout the year, so keeping your plants flowering all year round supports a healthy bee population.
“Bees forage from flowers rich in nectar and pollen,” explains the guide. “The nectar contains sugar they need for energy, and pollen contains protein and oils. Bee species’ tongues vary in size, so try to provide different shaped flowers.”
3. Build Bee Hotels
Bee hotels are another easy way of encouraging insect life in your outdoor space. It is possible to make a suitable nest site for bees from scratch, at home. But they are also available at garden centers, home stores, and online.
Bee hotels should be secured to a flat surface and protected from strong winds. By facing the bee hotel to the south or southwest, you can maximize its exposure to the sun. This will help keep bees warm through the colder months.
Bee hotels are easy to set up locally and can are popular additions to allotments and other shared green spaces. Drilling varied holes into a dead tree can also provide a temporary sanctuary to the bees and other insects.
4. Create Bee Baths
Building a simple water feeder for local pollinators can also encourage bees to frequent your garden. Ensuring bees have somewhere safe to land while they drink is essential when creating a water source.
Filling a container with stones or pebbles before topping it up with water creates a safe pool that insects should have no trouble moving on from. Placing the container in the shade, somewhere near pollen-rich flowers can also encourage interaction.
5. Help Struggling Bees
Solitary, unmoving bees may be exhausted, and a little help can often get them back on their way. Mixing two tablespoons of white sugar with one tablespoon of water creates a bee-friendly energy drink.
However, it is important to ensure that this is used only temporarily and to support an individual bee. If too much sugar water is made available, bees can become reliant on it.