A rapid decline in bee populations is threatening the global food system, but there are things that people can do to help save them.
Many bee species are currently endangered. Given that up to 30% of human food supplies rely on bees for pollination, the extinction of bees would result in severe food shortages and devastate economies worldwide. There are a number of things that people can do to help prevent this potential catastrophe.
Grow a Garden to Attract and Nourish Bees
Creating bee-friendly spaces is easy, because the plants that bees like best are inexpensive and easy to grow. To attract and feed bees:
- Plant native flowers, berries, fruit trees, and herbs in a garden, in pots on a deck, or in window boxes.
- Grow many different types of plants – like people, bees are healthier when they consume a varied diet.
- Plant flowers in colours attractive to bees, such as yellow, blue, and purple. Bees don’t see the red end of the colour spectrum – red flowers look green to them, making it difficult to differentiate them from surrounding foliage. The exceptions are certain flowers such as poppies with a high ultraviolet light reflectance, as bees can see the ultraviolet portion of the spectrum
- Set aside a portion of the garden for weeds – particularly white clover, dandelion, milkweed, ironweed, and goldenrod. These are great food sources for bees. Also, because weeds will usually bloom in the fall, they provide nourishment when other food sources are disappearing.
For tips on what to plant in various Canadian locations, visit the Native Plant Database (scroll down to the “Miscellaneous” heading and choose “Bees” for a selection of bee-friendly plants and flowers). For free United States regional planting guides, visit the Pollinator Partnership website.
Provide Homes for Bees
One way to help bees is to become a beekeeper, providing homes and support for honey bees, but most people don’t have the time, energy, and suitable space for this occupation. For those not willing or able to become beekeepers, there are some quick, easy ways to create homes for bees.
Build a Mason Bee House
Mason bees, which are usually a dark, metallic blue-green colour, are great pollinators and not at all aggressive. Rather than living in hives, these solitary bees make their homes in small holes, usually in wood.
Mason bee houses can be made quite easily by taking a piece of untreated scrap lumber and using a 5/16-inch drill bit to drill holes about 5 inches deep. These holes should not go right through the block of wood.
For those who are less handy with tools, securely tying or duct taping a batch of hollow bamboo sticks (or any other dried, hollow plant stems) and using something to block off the holes on one end will also create a good mason bee home.
Hang or secure the mason bee house to the south side of a building, fence post, or tree. For an extra-safe home, surround the house with chicken wire to stop predatory birds from eating the bee larvae. Don’t spray insecticides in the vicinity of the bee house.
Build a Bumblebee House
Bumblebees are plump, round bees. They are also excellent pollinators and tend to be docile and non-aggressive. It’s quite easy to provide a spring and summer home for these more sociable bees, which nest in groups.
Build or purchase a wooden box 7-8 inches square with a removable lid. Fit a plastic tube (3/4 inch in diameter) in the roof to make an entrance. For those who aren’t as handy, an upended large terra-cotta pot with a drainage hole or a big teapot buried in the dirt with just the spout sticking out will do.
For a more entertaining bumblebee house, build or purchase a nest box fitted with a glass observation window and bury it in the ground so that just the glass roof is showing. Add a little dried moss, upholstery batting, or dryer lint so that the bees can make a softer nest. Don’t use anything with long fibers such as wool, because the bumblebees’ tiny claws will snag on the fibers.
As with mason bee houses, don’t use treated wood and don’t spray insecticides anywhere near the house.
Avoid Toxic Chemicals
Pesticides and other toxic chemicals have been implicated in the decline of bee populations. To prevent harming bees:
- Eat organic food that is free of pesticides and encourage others to do likewise.
- Sign petitions and support laws in favour of banning toxic pesticides.
- Use natural methods of garden pest control.
For more information on bees, see the main Bees page.
- Brackney, S. (2009). Plan Bee. New York: Penguin Group.
- National Wildlife Federation. (2010). “Bee Houses.” NWF.org.
- Roach, J. (5 October 2004). “Bee Decline May Spell End of Some Fruits, Vegetables.” National Geographic News, News, NationalGeographic.com.