Gardening for Bees

The pollinating work that bees do is crucial to our food supply. Learn how to help our fuzzy friends by creating a bee-friendly garden.

| March/April 2015

  • Bees are particularly attracted to purple, blue, white and yellow blooms.
    Photo by iStock

It’s hard to open a newspaper or magazine these days without seeing an article about the decline of bees and the subsequent effect on our food crops. The ecological service that pollinators provide is necessary for the reproduction of more than 85 percent of the world’s plants, including more than two-thirds of the world’s crop species. Some crops, including blueberries and cherries, are 90 percent dependent on bee pollination.

Several factors contribute to declining bee numbers. For one, the U.S. has seen a major decline in the practice of keeping bees. “Since 1945, we have seen about a 50 percent decline in the number of managed honeybees in the United States,” says Eric Mader, national pollinator outreach coordinator at the Xerces Society. (If you have an interest in beekeeping, join our beekeeping community at Keeping Backyard Bees.) Meanwhile, the number of planted crops that require pollination has nearly doubled during the same time period.

Pesticides pose another problem. “Beekeepers are reporting massive die-offs in their hives or situations where bees simply don’t return,” says Brian DeVore, communications director of the Land Stewardship Project. “In addition, many species of native pollinators, such as various types of bumblebees, are endangered,” he says.

The class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids is suspected to be one of the major causes of bee die-offs. The pesticides, nicknamed “neonics,” were introduced in the 1990s and have become the most widely used insecticide in the world—so ubiquitous that they are now found in 80 percent of the world’s crops. They come coated on virtually every seed planted in every major crop across the country—sunflowers, canola, cotton, soybeans and corn, for example. Neonics are systemic; they are taken up and move freely through the entire plant making every part of it toxic. When ingested, the compounds can cripple a bee’s navigational skills and its ability to find its way home after foraging. They may also interfere with a honeybee’s intricate “waggle dance” that tells other bees where to find flowers. Neonics can also undermine bees’ immune systems.

A recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health demonstrated that neonics are likely responsible for triggering colony collapse disorder (CCD) in honeybee hives that were healthy prior to the arrival of winter. Last year, Europe adopted a three-year moratorium on neonicotinoids. Cities in the states of Washington and Oregon have enacted similar bans. Last fall, Home Depot announced it would require labels on plants containing neonics, and the Minnesota Legislature recently passed a law forbidding nurseries to put “bee-friendly” labels on plants containing the pesticide. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced that neonics will be banned in the 150-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System by January 2016.

And there are still more reasons for the decline in bee populations: loss of floral diversity and habitat due to urbanization; expansion of intensive agriculture; invasive plants; climate change; disease; and parasites. The changing face of agriculture results in a flowerless monoculture of cash crops. Farmers once grew sweet clover and alfalfa to add fertilizer to the soil. Now much of the Midwestern landscape is an agricultural desert of corn and soybeans—plants that don’t feed bees. Synthetic fertilizers have replaced natural ones, and the widespread use of herbicides has virtually wiped out the milkweed, clover and wildflowers that once grew in farming regions. In suburban areas, millions of acres of grass offer no nutrition for bees. Bees are left to forage in smaller and smaller areas—wildlife preserves, state parks and strips of untended land between roads and fields.

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