Native Bees are Dying. Here’s How You Can Help
From Cheerios to Burt’s Bees, honey bees are everywhere in American society. Maybe that’s why, when the topic turns to disappearing bees, everyone thinks of the honey bee. But honey bees aren’t the most common bee, or even the most important. Here’s what you need to know about the other bees — our native species.
What are Native Bees?
When most people think of bees, they think of the honey bee. Honey bees are ubiquitous throughout American culture, but while honey bees are common today, they aren’t actually indigenous to the U.S.
Honey bees were imported from Europe in the 1600s and are considered a domesticated species. Nevertheless, honey bees are a big part of U.S. agriculture today. There are about 2.5 million honey bee colonies in the U.S. today, many of which are used to pollinate the crops that end up on grocery store shelves. Without these commercial pollination services, some crops would experience dramatic declines in yields while others wouldn’t produce at all.
However, while honey bees are important, they aren’t the only pollinating bee out there. The United States is home to more than 4,000 native bee species that contribute to pollination in their own right. Not only do small farmers who can’t afford to hire commercial bees rely on native pollinators for production, but even big farms need native bees to pollinate their crops — honey bees just tend to get all the credit.
Native bee species like the bumble bee, mason bee, and squash bee pollinate 90 percent of all watermelon crops, pollinate twice as many blueberries as honey bees, and are solely responsible for pollinating tomatoes. Beyond crops, native bees keep our wildflowers and other native plants blooming year after year, protecting the biodiversity of our natural world. And although they don’t produce honey, that only makes them more effective pollinators: While honey bees tend to go after a flower’s nectar, wild bees head straight for the pollen.
Why are Native Bees in Danger?
Declining honey bee populations have received a lot of attention, but few people realize that native bees are in just as much danger, if not more, than the domesticated honey bee. More than 700 of those 4,000 native bee species are threatened, and nearly 350 are considered at risk of extinction. That includes three bumblebee species, those master pollinators that help bring us delicious tomatoes each summer.
The greatest threat to wild bees is habitat loss. With increasing urbanization, there are fewer and fewer natural areas for native bees to call home. And it’s not just paved cities — the popularity of grassy lawns and parks, non-native flower gardens, and large-scale monocultural agriculture has led to the depletion of diverse ecosystems that can provide year-round food and shelter to bees.
In addition, what natural areas we do have tend to be sprayed with insecticides that devastate bee populations as they disrupt bees’ ability to forage, reproduce, and resist common diseases and parasites. So even when food is available, it may not be safe.
What’s the Answer?
With so many factors at play, solving the native bee crisis can seem overwhelming. However, this is an issue where everyone can make a difference.
The first measure to take is stopping pesticide use on home lawns and gardens. Keep unwanted weeds in check through methods like hand-pulling and spot-treating with a vinegar solution. Manage garden pests naturally through crop rotation, beneficial insects, and manual removal.
One of the best ways to keep your yard looking gorgeous while also supporting native bees is to incorporate pollinator habitat into your landscape design. Install native flowering plants to attract wild bees and add year-round color to your home. Plant flowers with a variety of colors, shapes, and blooming times to attract the widest variety of bees possible. Incorporate bare ground, dead wood, and a water feature to encourage bees to nest in your garden. Here are more tips on building the perfect bee-friendly garden.
The fate of our native bees is something everyone should be concerned about, and thankfully, it’s easy for everyone to take action.
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