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.

Honey bees can't do it all.

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.

Let's help bumble bees get back on top! photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jasonscottmeans/1517628861/

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.


  1.  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.
  2. Don’t use insecticides.
  3. Encourage a natural landscape where bumble bees can find abandoned rodent burrows and tussocks of grass for their nests.
  4. Don’t till or mow in areas where bumble bees might nest.
  5. 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

8 replies

  1. Last year we had two lots of bees in our composting straw pile. We ended up having to put stick in so we knew where they were and could leave them in peace. Would have been so easy to have gone in with the tractor and lost them all. Hopefully we will get bees too as well, not sure it will be this year or next year.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Joanna. I have seen bumble bees on my land, but have never had the time to try and follow them back to their nest. This summer I won’t have time either while we are building our own nest.
    Once the earth moving is done I plan to replant the area in a succession of native, forbes and grasses.

  3. That’s a great article. I also recommend that as much as you can, please try to purchase organic produce – or grow your own organic. The reason is that by purchasing organic, you are helping to support more sustainable farming practice. When more people do that, retailers eventually get the message, and start demanding more organic produce. Also, include wildflowers in your garden because wildflower habitats are in steep decline due to land management and farming practice.
    Lastly, try to buy organically grown flower bulbs, plants and seeds as neonicotinoid insecticides are used extensively in horticulture. Swap plants with others to save money – and choose open-pollinated heirloom/heritage varieties where you can.

    • thanks for your comments, Amanda. These are good points. I work with organic materials as much as possible.

  4. Hi, Denise, I rely wholly on native pollinators in my vegetable gardens. Fortunately I have several prairie gardens adjacent to the veggie gardens and that seems to help. One year I planted dry beans along the garden fence (Scarlet Runner and Hidatsa Shield) and that year we got 10-15 squashes per plant! Just incredible!

    One my favorite activities is to just stand in a prairie garden on a warm summer day watching and listening to the bees and other pollinators.

  5. Hi Dennis,
    Your prairie gardens probably really encourage the native pollinators. What a great idea.
    Last Thursday as I was working outside finishing timbers for our house, a bumble bee buzzed me. Maybe he was drawn to the blue color of the casing of the angle grinder.
    I hope with everything blooming in such a rush this spring, there will be plenty of flowers a little later for our native pollinators.

  6. What if it is just a small condo backyard. It Has a few squirrels, back fence has very large trees, and I have Hummingbirds, and nuthatches, and water sources?
    How to get bumble bees?

    • Hi Jan,
      You know, every little bit helps. Your yard could be a tiny oasis for native pollinators with a little modification. The neat thing is that pollinators and humans appreciate the same things when it comes to flowers. Learn more at http://www.xerces.org/pollinator-conservation/
      They are my first source for this kind of info.

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