We have all heard about the collapse of the honey bee population, and if you aren’t scared – you should be. Pollinators make it possible for more than 70% of the plants on earth to set seed. You can thank pollinators for one in three mouthfuls of food you eat each day.
Modern agribusiness depends on hives of honey bees that are shipped to their fields. Right now the bees are all in California pollinating 750,000 acres of almond groves. It’s a heck of a life for those bees. Treating them like a product it taking its toll. Since the 1950s we have seen a 50% decline in managed honey bees in the U.S.
If you wonder why food prices are going up, honey bees can be a factor. Almond growers need 2 hives per acres, and they are being forced to fly in honey bees from as far away as Australia.
The good news is that European honey bees aren’t the only pollinators out there. We have 4,000 native bee species in North America.
The bad news is that our native bee populations are declining too, and some are teetering on the brink of extinction. Some may already be gone. They are disappearing as we plow up and pave their habitat.
Fortunately there is a little more good news, and it comes from the Xerces Society.
At the Midwest Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse, WI, last week, I had to choose 6 of their 65 workshops from Building Soils for Urban Agriculture to Visual Assessment of Mineral Deficiencies in Vegetable Crops, and I chose 2 workshops on native pollinators and the native plants to support them. The classes were led by Eric Mader and Jennifer Hopwood of the Xerces Society.
The Xerces Society is like the Audubon Society for insects, and aquatic invertebrates –which constitute 99% of life on earth. We depend on them in ways we don’t even understand yet. The society gets its quirky name from a beautiful, blue North American butterfly that went extinct when its habitat was paved as part of the World War II effort.
Back to bees.
Mader said that even as bee populations are declining, the crop acreage that needs those bees is growing. Since 1960 there has been a 300% increase in global cropland requiring bee pollination.
Among native bees, there are three basic groups: ground nesting and wood nesting and bumble bees. I’m going to focus here on bumble bees because they are so valuable and so endangered.
Bumble bees pollinate many important crops – red clover, tomatoes, melons, cucumbers and cranberries, to name a few.
They are active at cooler temperatures than other bees because they can warm up by shivering their flight wings. This can be crucial during cool spells in spring. They are the first bees out in the morning and the last to quit at night.
Bumble bees are social, like honey bees. They form colonies founded by a queen. If you see a bumble bee in April or May, you are looking at a queen. Later the queen stays home, and you see her team of up to 300 worker bees. They are strong flyers, able to travel as much as a mile and a half, but they live for only one season. In the fall, newly hatched queens mate, and store enough body fat to find a hiding place and hibernate till spring.
Because bumble bees are so valuable, we have been trying to domesticate them. The Dutch succeeded, and we sent American bumble bees to Europe to be domesticated and returned. Unfortunately, they picked up a European pathogen and carried it back to the U.S.
It’s been a tough go for bumble bees when you add this European pathogen to habitat habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change.
That’s where we can step in and make a difference. We can make spaces where bumble bees can thrive, and these same spaces will also become a haven for other helpful insects.
CREATING A POLLINATION HABITAT
- If we want bumble bees to be there when the cranberries and tomato plants bloom, we need to provide a succession of blooming flowers – spring, summer and fall. They need a minimum of three blooming plants at any moment in their season.
- Don’t use insecticides.
- Encourage a natural landscape where bumble bees can find abandoned rodent burrows and tussocks of grass for their nests.
- Don’t till or mow in areas where bumble bees might nest.
- Get to know your area bumble bees.
Guides are available from Elaine Evans and the Xerces Society for the following species because they are very endangered.
- the rusty-patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) – download PDF
- the western bumble bee (Bombus occidentalis) – download PDF
- the yellowbanded bumble bee (Bombus terricola) – download PDF
Or check out really a comprehensive guide at Bumblebee.org