Everyone knows the honey bee, but did you know that there are over 20,000 different species of bee in the world and that there are some 4,000 species that live in the US and Canada alone? In fact, honey bees (Apis species) are actually not native to North America but originated in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Bees are incredibly important insects whose pollination services help plants produce some of our most popular foods, like blueberries and squash, and keep ecosystems functioning and healthy. Unfortunately, many species are in real trouble due to pesticide use in agriculture, habitat loss, and climate change.
The good news is that each of us can do something to help the bees in our own backyard.
Plant native wildflowers
Like us, bees need a balanced diet to remain healthy. One of the very best things that you can do to help out your neighborhood bees is to plant wildflowers that are native to your region. Native wildflowers are especially suited to feed the pollinators that have co-evolved with them. Desert bees do best on desert wildflowers. Mountain bees prefer flowers that bloom at the right times. Even in cities, bees still do best on the original flowers that would have grown there before development. It’s also very important to plant a variety of plants that bloom at different times throughout the season. This will allow bees to always have a food source throughout the time that they are active. There are many sources online for sustainably harvested, native seeds. Fun fact: bees prefer flowers that are colors other than red (most bees can’t see red) so blue, yellow, white, or purple are often their favorites.
Provide nesting habitat
Out of the world’s 20,000 or so species, most bees are solitary. This means that rather than living in a large hive, like honey bees do, most nesting bees are hardworking single moms providing nectar and pollen for a few eggs at a time. After she has provisioned food for each egg (in the form of a little round or square loaf that she has molded herself from the pollen that she has collected), the mother seals off the nesting chamber. Once she has completed her work, she will no longer remain with the nest.
The vast majority of these solitary bees nest in the ground, which means they need a safe place to lay their eggs. By allowing a corner of your backyard or local park to remain a little messy with leaves, taller grass, or hard-packed soil, you’ll provide a place for them to build their nests.
It is also worth noting that most of the world’s bees are too small to sting and, unlike honey bees which have a colony to defend, it is very risky for a solitary bee to sting. If a mother bee stings and is swatted and killed after doing so, her young will perish without her. And you might be surprised to learn that no male bees have stingers.
Offer them a pesticide-free environment
Pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are all bad news for bees. Pesticides come in many forms and some, such as neonicotinoids, are systemic, meaning that they make every part of the plant (including nectar and pollen) toxic to bees. To avoid harming bees in this way, avoid spraying, or if you need to control more pesty insect species, use organic or biocontrol agents. The more habitat you provide for insects in your garden, the more you invite beneficial insects and other invertebrates to appear and control your pests for you. You should also always ensure that any plants or seeds that you purchase were grown organically and without neonicotinoids. Remember, these pesticides never leave the plant and can make the ground that other plants grow in toxic as well for years to come.
Good luck in your journey to making your garden more bee-friendly! It is truly a “build it and they will come” scenario. If you are interested in learning more about the bees that you see, consider downloading the free iPhone and Android app, Seek. Simply take a photo with your phone, post the location and image, and experts will not only use your photos for citizen science, but they will also provide you with an identification.
By Clay Bolt, Senior Communications Lead for World Wildlife Fund’s Northern Great Plains (NGP) Program