I have a deep interest in nature, gardening, and sustainability. The local arboretum is my universe of learning, and my garden is my lab!
The Importance of Bees
Do you ever consider where your food comes from? Largely, we have food because the earth has bees. They are not the only pollinators, but they are a major player. Whether it's the European honey bee, bumble bee or the bees of the Americas, they all contribute to our food chain, and if we want to keep eating, it would be a good idea to look out for them.
There is an alarming trend in bee colonies that is going on and has been going on for a while. It's not just one or two bees or even one hundred dying; the whole colony is collapsing. This is called colony collapse disorder. Basically the worker bees go out in search of food and never come back. If the bees cannot find food, they cannot feed the queen, the drones, or the developing brood. This has a negative ripple effect beginning at the top of the food chain. If we don't eat, we don't survive. All kinds of animals depend on vegetation for their nutrition. Cows are the biggest consumers of prairie grasses. Just like us, they need food to survive. The flowers that grow on these grasses need to be pollinated. If there are no bees to pollinate them, then no food is available for the cows. I'm sure you see where I am going with this.
Other members of their colony depend on worker bees. This crisis is so serious that the rusty banded bumble bee is on the endangered species list. That's outrageous and inexcusable. These bees are a major pollinator of wildflowers and food crops. If you enjoy your summer tomatoes, thank the rusty banded bumble bee. He is almost the only pollinator of this crop according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
It surprises me that in 2017 people still believe that the world begins and end with us. We are so inter-connected and dependent on other species that our very survival depends on our understanding of and cooperation with our natural world.
Scientists have been researching colony collapse disorder for a number of years, and one thing they are looking at is the use of pesticides, specifically neonicotinoids. This is a substance that affects neural pathways in insects and is a broad spectrum insecticide. So, even if this doesn't kill the bees directly, if it alters the messages coming through their pathways it can alter the bees' behavior. If their food searching behavior changes or becomes erratic this could contribute to colony collapse.
Alarmingly beekeepers lost 42 percent of their honey bee colonies between 2014 and 2015 according to the USDA. A quantum shift in thought may not happen until we are directly affected by the loss of food; in other words, until we are made uncomfortable by hunger. We'll go to the local farmers market expecting our lovely fresh tomatoes for the summer, and there will be none or a very limited quantity.
I urge you to educate yourself! If you are designing a garden for the first time, don't just go for the exotic flowers, in fact, I would urge you to stay away from them. Yarrow is a wonderful flower in the carrot family with hundreds of tiny daisy-like flowers and beautiful lacy fringed leaves. Honey and bumble bees love yarrow because of its multiple flat flower heads. These flat flower heads give them a place to land and look for females. Yes, bees have a fascinating social life.
Flowers for Bees
Honey bees and bumble bees have specific anatomy which has evolved along with specific flowers. This is no accident. Please pay attention to this. When you stop by your nursery, more and more you will find a bee friendly section. These flowers may not be what you are initially interested in. They tend to be more subtle and not as showy as a gardenia, rose or tropical hibiscus, but they have a subtle beauty that makes you want to look closer.
Some flowers that bees gravitate to are daisies, asters, sea holly (my favorite), yarrows, and indigo bush, also known as prairie clover. This little flower, botanical name 'dalea', has a ruff of tiny flowers at the base from which an elongated cone emerges. Dalea species is lovely in the purple pink form and elegant in the white variety. Some strains of dalea have deep orange stamens that emerge from the purple flowers in a surprising burst of citrus color. This pop of color is delightfully unexpected, and if you plant this in your garden the bees will thank you.
Virginia Bluebells, botanical name mertensia virginica, are a charming little flower that occurs all along the Eastern seaboard. They grow to about two feet high and about just as wide and are a beautiful clear blue color. The color actually starts out as pink, then, as this flower opens into a trumpet shape, it deepens into a beautiful blue. They love shaded areas and moist, rich soil. This is a native Missouri wildflower which can grow in zones 3 through 8.
Behavior of Bees
Much has been written about the behavior of bees. They are quite intelligent and industrious. We could learn a lot from them, starting with:
- Bees are cooperative. They work together with other members of the hive for the singular goal of producing food (honey) for the queen and taking care of her babies.
- Bees are clean and neat. Look at a hive closely and you will find a highly organized living space without an inch of wasted space. The hive is a strong, sturdy structure that the bees in the colony build together.
- Honey bees mind their own business and co-exist with other pollinators peacefully. They are too busy making honey to be making trouble. There is one exception to this though. Out of all the eggs the queen lays, there will be one female that will challenge the queen. She does this by making a clicking sound as she hatches, which will signal the two females to fight and fight to the death. This may seem cruel to you and I but this is nature's way of renewing the hive.
- Bees always leave time for a social life. Think of the flowers you plant as their meeting up places for socialization.
- As you can see from the youtube video, European honey bees rarely attack unless they feel threatened. However, the African and Asian subspecies are much more aggressive.
- Honey bees can defend themselves from highly aggressive species such as wasps and hornets. One way they do this is with a wave motion of their collective bodies. When they perceive a threat, they band together and move their bodies as one unit in a giant wave pattern. This confounds the intruder because he is unable to land on the moving mass of bees. I'd say that is pretty brilliant.
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Simple Steps to Save Our Bees
- Here's one easy way: Don't poison your dandelions! These are the first foods in spring for honey bees. Leave an area of your yard a little wild. How would you like to wake up after a long winter and have no food to look forward to?
- Be wary of insecticides. Scientific thought is that some insecticides, although not targeted at honey bees, leave the bees vulnerable to illness and infections. One debilitating infection is passed to the bees by the varroa mite. These mites feed on the bees in the colony and the developing brood. This mite is an eight-legged silent terror that latches onto the thorax of honey bees and sucks the blood out of them. Being an external parasite, once it gets comfortable, it is loathe to give up its host. It is also smart. It will crawl into a beehive cell where a pupa is developing. Her timing is perfect. Just before the pupa is sealed into it's sleeping chamber by an unsuspecting worker bee she will climb aboard. Once attached, she will lay eggs on the pupa and will have a nice long nutritional nap. When her young hatch they will also feed on the developing pupa. You will find parasites anywhere on earth, so this is nothing new. The devastation that occurs is that the bees are born with deformed wings and legs or none at all due to the virus the mite transmits. No wings or deformed legs equals no traveling, no socialization and no food for the hive.
- A note to beekeepers: If you see bees with deformed wings or any body part, contact your local county extension office for available remedies.
- Honey bees like more open flower forms. Honey bees will thank you if you plant any circular flowers that they can land on and use their short tongues to collect nectar. That's why they love dandelions and asters.
- Keep this in mind: Your yard is not your house. When you do your fall or spring clean-up, leave some areas undisturbed or messy. Bumblebees make their nests on the ground and enjoy some leaf cover. Leave your lawn alone for as long as you can in the spring because those little clover flowers and dandelions that pop up are the first foods for bees. Mow the lawn later; don't you have better things to do anyway?
- When your other native flowers come up, then remove dandelions if there are too many. Hand pull or if that's too much work, put salt all around the roots. Now you can start to mow your lawn on a regular basis, this will keep the weeds at bay.
© 2017 Claudia Smaletz
Claudia Smaletz (author) from East Coast on September 09, 2017:
Thank-you for reading the article and keep on gardening:)
Claudia Smaletz (author) from East Coast on September 09, 2017:
Bees are so important, and I really don't think people realize how important they are. Thanks for reading the article.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on April 23, 2017:
Yes, I don't think people realize how important bees are. I do like to try and help them where I can in the garden.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 23, 2017:
We have an urban farm and we're well-aware of the importance of bees. In fact, next year, there's a pretty good chance of us taking up beekeeping. :)