You Can Help Make the World a Bit Safer for Bees

The products you buy and the way you tend to your yard can help protect these vital pollinators.
(Photo: Kerstin Klaassen/Getty Images)
Oct 19, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

The precipitous decline of bees, widely considered to be the world’s most important pollinator, has been making headlines since about 2006, when mysterious, massive die-offs were corralled under the term colony collapse disorder. In May of this year, the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service released the results of its first-ever honeybee colony loss survey, and it makes for sobering reading.

The most recent buzz (sorry), however, is about the welcome announcement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that seven once common species of Hawaiian yellow-faced bees (genus Hylaeus) have been granted federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, along with 42 other animal and plant species from the Hawaiian Islands. The listing—which came a week after the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed adding another bee, the rusty patched bumblebee, to the endangered species list—was the culmination of years of study by the invertebrate conservation organization the Xerces Society, as well as state government officials and independent researchers.

What makes these yellow-faced bees so special? “Only one type of bee managed to successfully reach the islands on its own—a yellow-faced bee, Hylaeus. From that one original colonist they evolved into 63 known endemic species,” wrote entomologist Karl Magnacca, of the O‘ahu Army Natural Resources Program, for the University of Hawai‘i Master Gardeners Program.

So not only are these species evolutionarily unique (Hawaii is the most isolated island archipelago in the world), but these pollinators of many of the most important trees and shrubs of Hawaii are threatened by habitat destruction, the introduction of nonnative plant and predator species, wildfires, hurricanes, tsunamis, and drought. The seven bee species listed as endangered are teetering on the edge of extinction.

Before I forget, along with the Fish and Wildlife Service announcement came misleading reports that all bee species were endangered. Just to clarify, that is not true, and debunked the rumor.

In general, bees are arguably the world’s most effective pollinators. Unlike butterflies, bats, and hummingbirds—which visit flowers, get pollen on their bodies in their quest for nectar, and thus carry it from plant to plant—bees actively collect pollen.

In the process, they transfer large amounts of pollen from flower to flower, explained a 2015 piece in Mother Earth News on the role insect pollinators play in seed saving. “Bees also exhibit a behavior called floral constancy, which means that they visit flowers of one species repeatedly over a period of time. This is important because it means that most of the pollen they collect will be transferred to flowers of the same species, allowing fertilization to proceed provided other conditions are suitable. In addition, bees are also one of the few groups of insects that actively construct a home for their young. This place-based behavior limits their foraging range; bees tend to visit the same groups of plants over and over again, making them ideal garden pollinators.”

Mid-October is a great time to assess how friendly your garden is to overwintering bees.

“Insect pollinators can spend the winter in a variety of life stages (egg, larva, pupa, or adult) and this varies, depending on the species. Most native bees spend the winter in their nest cells as pupae, emerging as adults the following spring or summer, so it is critical to protect nesting areas from disturbance all year long, not just during the nesting season,” explains the Great Pollinator Project. “One exception is bumble bees, which do not overwinter in their nests. Instead, new bumble bee queens emerge from their natal nest in the fall and search for overwintering sites, burrowing into leaf litter or loose soil. It is just as important to provide sheltered areas for them.”

Like butterflies and moths, which also overwinter in a variety of life stages, bees need sheltered areas in which to spend the winter. “To provide these safe havens, set aside undisturbed patches of habitat allowing leaf litter, standing dead twigs/stems, or other ground cover to remain. Do not till soil where there might be ground nests. ‘Wild,’ unmanicured locations will provide the protected nooks and crannies that pollinators and other animals need for survival,” the project’s website continues.

Talk about taking the pressure off! I just took a look around our garden, and somehow it is no longer in overgrown, overblown autumnal disarray. It’s habitat. If you, like me, are interested in making your garden more of a haven for bees and other pollinators throughout the year, here’s how.

Even if you don’t have a garden or a window box, there are a number of ways to support good bee habitat management. If you’re the citizen scientist type, check out such worthy organizations as Bumble Bee Watch and the Native Bee Nest Site Project. When shopping at farmers markets, patronize growers who are certified organic or who practice integrated pest management techniques, which minimize pesticide use and risk to bees.

Buy local honey instead of cheap foreign imports, which may be cut with high-fructose corn syrup or contain harmful contaminants. It’s important to know that you shouldn’t get hung up on whether honey is labeled “organic.” There aren’t any USDA standards for organic honey. Even though farmers and beekeepers may be firmly rooted in a certified-organic environment, their bees are not. They have a forage area of two or three miles, and they are equal-opportunity pollinators, finding nectar and pollen in nonorganic and organic fields and gardens alike.

A few years ago I interviewed Annie Novak, cofounder of Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “When you take a frame out of the hive,” she told me, “you can tell where the bees are getting pollen.” Once she pulled one out and it was all red, she added. Her bees had patronized the Dumpster over at the maraschino cherry factory in Red Hook, several miles away.