Nothing evokes summer more than the humming of bees and the scent of lavender. Just writing these words I can almost feel the warm sun, blue sky kind of summer day that creates the hum of bee activity in the flowers.
And the bumblebees that were so active in the flower bed gathering nectar and pollen? By the end of the summer, they have all died off but not before the old queen produced several eggs that developed into new queens. These new queens left the colony, mated, then each found somewhere to hibernate for the winter. Next spring as the weather warms and blossom appears on our fruit trees with the first flowers blooming in the garden, these new queens will emerge, lay their eggs and forage for food for their growing colony.
As for the honeybees busy in the vegetable garden in August, they will overwinter in the hive, dining on stored honey, and cluster around the queen to protect her from the cold.
Evidence from the fossil record shows that this cycle has been repeating itself for the last 120 million years, a time frame that corresponds with the emergence of the first flowering plants. This evidence poses a “chicken and egg” conundrum. Which came first, bee or flower? What is known is that a fascinatingly complex, mutually beneficial relationship has evolved over millions of years.
Flowers aren’t the only beneficiaries. 80% of the world’s crops depend on insect pollination which roughly translates into one out of every three bites of food we enjoy, delivered to us by the generous industry of bees. The bounty of our garden – freezer full of vegetables, pantry stocked with canned fruits and vegetables, cider fermenting in the garage, raspberry infused vodka, blackberry ice-cream – courtesy of the bees.
And yet the future for bees is looking very bleak. A recent United Nations sponsored report reveals that 40% of invertebrate pollinators such as bees and butterflies are facing extinction. In 2015 alone, 42% of the honey bees in managed hives died. Most recently, seven species of bees from Hawaii have have been put on the Endangered Species list, with the dubious distinction of being the first bees to make the list.
Scientists have identified numerous causes threatening the survival of bees ranging from modern changes in land use with resulting loss of wildflower diversity, intensive agricultural practices including widespread use of pesticides, invasive plant species, diseases, pests and climate change. A look at all the garden bounty we’ve stored for the winter or a wander around the grocery store with the knowledge that bees are responsible for 1 in 3 bites of food we enjoy, underscores the fact that human food security is inextricably intertwined with the future of bees.
This was brought home to me recently on a trip to England visiting family. We spent two days in London with a trip to the Royal Botanical Kew Gardens. Their latest exhibit is the Hive, an art installation where visitors are invited to step inside the extraordinary life of bees. The 56 foot high structure is formed from thousands of pieces of aluminum to form a honeycomb. It contains hundreds of LED lights, connected to vibrational sensors within one of the bee hives at Kew Gardens, that glow and fade in response to bee activity. Small speakers are also linked to hive activity and a uniquely haunting melody reminiscent of the sound of bees, swells or fades accordingly. Sadly, the day we visited the weather was wet and gray, in true British fashion, and only a scattering of the lights were glowing in time with the muted strains of music. As impressive as it was, I can imagine how incredible it would be to visit on a sunny day when the beehive is buzzing with activity, The Hive responding with its light show. Check out the video produced by Kew Gardens showing this brilliantly designed piece of artwork.
The purpose of the structure is to educate the public about bees: their vital role as pollinators in protecting global food security, and the threats they face. More importantly, it also gives us a glimpse into a fascinating world and inspires a sense of wonder for these incredible insects we often take for granted. Curiosity and wonder lead to caring and bees need all the care we can provide. After all their future is our future.
The good news is there are plenty of things governments, communities and individuals can do. In May 2015 President Obama took an important first step in forming an interagency Task Force to create a Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators. Increasing the quantity and quality of habitat for pollinators was identified as vital.
All of which got me thinking of the things I could do on a personal level………..
10 Bee Friendly Ideas
- Plant a bee friendly garden, window boxes and flower beds, with a variety of plantings that provide a nectar source throughout the year.
- Buy seeds and plants that aren’t grown using neonicotinoidal pesticides. These chemicals, currently banned in Europe, are still in use in the US and affect the central nervous system of insects, resulting in paralysis and death.
- Lobby local nurseries to stock seeds and plants free from neonicotinoids.
- My personal favorite – weed less since many weeds are important sources of nectar.
- Bees get thirsty and will often drown in bird baths or pools. Provide a bee friendly water source – a shallow water dish filled with small stones or marbles to provide safe perching spot for bees.
- Build an insect hotel, providing shelter for a variety of bees.
- Provide a layer of mulch on the flower beds – not only will this provide nutrients for plants it will also provide additional shelter for hibernating bees.
- Support local organic farmers and buy locally sourced organic produce.
- Buy locally produced honey – not only will this support local beekeepers it also protects against seasonal allergies as we ingest small quantities of local pollen. In addition, commercial honey contains higher quantities of sugar since commercially managed hives are fed supplemental sugar water to boost honey production.
- Support conservation organizations working to protect bees.