Wild Bees Need Our Help
Since the early 2000s, the world has been abuzz with concern about honeybees and the hive-devastating phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, between 2006 and 2007, some beekeepers reported unexplained losses of between 30-90% of their hives. We now hypothesize that CCD is a result of the labor and environmental conditions honeybees are made to work in to pollinate our modern agricultural system. These conditions include traveling cross-country where hives are potentially introduced to new diseases, pests, and chemical amendments in the crops they pollinate. A revival of small-scale or backyard honeybee-keeping and pollination now seeks to counteract the negative effects of our industrial-scale agriculture.
But we can go even further! Before honeybees were introduced to the rest of the world from Asia, thousands of wild bee species were our bioregions' go-to pollinators. For some crops like tomatoes and watermelons, wild bees like bumblebees are still needed for pollination. Unlike honeybees, wild bees tend to live in solitary family units rather than as hives. They often have a natural immunity to pests like mites that can decimate honeybee hives. And they also tend to be less aggressive and less likely to make use of their stingers. Unfortunately, wild bees are more susceptible to the chemical additives we spray on our seeds and on our crops. They also tend to avoid territories with a lot of honeybee hives. And as a result of these two threats, many wild bees, including some types of bumblebees, are now endangered, while others have gone completely extinct.
The Other Bees
Some research has shown that wild bees pollinate more than 90% of the crops on studied farms! As scary as CCD sounds, try to imagine a world without watermelons, tomatoes, or other big beautiful flowers pollinated by these wild bees.
Lucky for all of us, there are still wild bees alive and doing their job to keep the world pollinated and resilient. We can all pitch in to help the bees whether we are farmers, home gardeners, or just everyday people shopping for groceries.
Percentage of Farm Pollination by Type of Bee
All around the world, wild bee advocates have taken to their woodshops to craft seasonal shelters (termed "bee hotels") for our wild bee neighbors. These bee houses are perfect for anyone with access to a garden of any size or even just an apartment porch! Simply place your bee hotel in a sunny, South-facing spot and let the bees come to you. No additional work is necessary.
The Buzz on NeoNicotinoids
Neonicotinoids are insecticides that are now commonly applied to seeds of many varieties. These chemicals are known to wipe out wild bee populations, but continue to be used (Source: Rundlöf et. al “Seed Coating With a Neonicotinoid Insecticide Negatively Affects Wild Bees” Nature, May 7, 2015). If you grow your own food or tend a garden of any size, check with your seed supplier to purchase only seeds which have not been treated with neonicotinoids.
Flirting With Food Systems
Simply as people who love good food, we can make a huge difference in the lives of honeybees and wild bees alike. It all starts when we make the choice to buy as much of our food on a local scale as possible. Industrial-scale agriculture necessitates industrial-scale pollination. In turn, this system exposes honeybees to CCD and destabilizes wild bee populations by introducing foreign bees to their territory alongside harmful industrial-scale agricultural practices and chemical amendments to the ecosystem. Food grown for local markets is food grown on a smaller scale. These farms are where wild bees can thrive and pollinate our food, herbal medicines, and beautiful flowers in return.
Unfortunately, we do not yet live in a world where buying local food is an economic privilege afforded to everyone. Many people live in areas termed "food deserts" where local food production has been completely colonized by industrial-scale agribusinesses and big box store grocers. It will take a symphony of farmers, home gardeners, entrepreneurs, and consumers to grow a healthy local food system accessible to all. But the beauty in this work is the way its challenge brings together the health of people, bees, and planet all at once.
"Radical simply means 'grasping things at the root'" (Angela Davis)
Getting to the Root
In addition to carefully sourcing our seeds to avoid neonicotinoids, those of us with the power to design and care for gardens of any size can make conscious choices to attract and partner with wild bees in our horticultural endeavors. Borage (photographed above) for instance, is both attractive to wild bees and a traditional companion and moth pest manager for tomatoes, a crop wild bees specifically are known to pollinate.
Similarly, fans of fennel, which is notoriously difficult to grow in partnership with other plants, may find success partnering the herb with dill. Not only will wild bees be attracted to the dill, but both dill and fennel will work to repel aphids from entering your garden. Sweet peas, sunflowers, pansies, tansy, and rue are also traditionally thought to attract wild bees. For gardeners looking to experiment with a cover crop or green manure, the herb comfrey not only fills this purpose, but has traditionally been used in folk medicine salves, and will constantly refill itself with nectar to keep your neighborhood bees happy and full.