Updated: Sep 21, 2020
Many of us remember a time when we saw a bee and ran away screaming. That could have been decades ago, maybe just years, and for so it could have been last week. However, there is one thing that's always been true for bees. They don't care about us, but we have to care about them.
Why Are Bees So Important?
Bees are an essential part of the life cycle. They are perfectly adapted for pollination, and by doing so, they help plants flower and provide us with the food we need to survive. The majority of plants we use for food rely on pollination, such as vanilla, apples, and squashes, and with bees accounting for 80% of pollination we would be out of food quick if they disappeared and so would other organisms
Bees are also responsible for maintaining the biodiversity of our planet. They support the growth of trees, flowers, and other plants, which serve as food and shelter for creatures large and small. Bees contribute to complex, interconnected ecosystems that allow a diverse number of different species to co-exist.
Their role as pollinators is also vital in the growth of tropical forests, Savannah woodlands, and temperate deciduous forests. Many tree species, like willows and poplars, couldn’t grow without pollinators like bees.
Even your own garden serves as a home for hundreds of tiny creatures, from birds and squirrels to thousands of tiny insects. If bees disappeared, the animals that depend on these plants for survival would vanish as well.
What's Happening to the Bees?
Fifteen years ago, beekeepers in the United States realized that thousands of their hives were mysteriously empty of bees. What followed was global concern over a new phenomenon: Colony Collapse Disorder. Not only was the US losing its honey bees, similar problems were being observed over the globe and the population of wild bees were dropping too.
Since then, many countries have created new monitoring methods to judge the status of their bee stocks. Yet, the US is still struggling with its bee population, losing nearly 30% of its bee population in the winter of 2015-16. These stats only get worse for wild bee population. There is only data for the species that are endangered or have gone extinct, but one species that was abundant has become endangered.
For all bees, foraging on flowers is a hard life. It is energetically and cognitively demanding; bees have to travel large distances to collect pollen and nectar from sometimes hard-to-find flowers, and return it all to the nest. To do this they need finely tuned senses, spatial awareness, learning and memory.
Anything that damages such skills can make bees struggle to find food, or even get lost while trying to forage. A bee that cannot find food and make it home again is as good as dead.
Because of this, bee populations are very vulnerable to what we call “sublethal stressors” – factors that don’t kill the bees directly but can hamper their behavior.
Who's to Blame?
Modern agriculture and industry have created a host of sublethal stressors that damage bees’ cognition. For example, diesel fumes and neonicotinoid pesticides both reduce bees’ foraging efficiency by disturbing chemical communications in their brains. Modern intensive agriculture disturbs bee nutrition, which impairs their brain. Climate change interferes with the relationship between bees and the plants on which they feed.
In addition, managed honey bees are afflicted by a range of pests, viruses and predators that have been spread around the world as a side effect of international trade. The worst is the ominously named Varroa destructor mite, which causes brain development disorders.
How Can We Help the Bees?
At the global level, to preserve our bees we have to improve the environments in which they collect food. Every small action can make a difference. Planting flower borders with bee-friendly flowers in your garden can provide food for both wild and domestic bees. You can reduce or eliminate the use of herbicides or pesticides when gardening. Even mowing the lawn less often can help bees out.
Planting a bee garden full of native flowers or those mentioned to the right creates a habitat with plants that are rich in pollen and nectar. You don’t need a ton of space to grow bee-friendly plants — gardens can be established in window boxes, flower pots and planters, and across yards. You can also get involved with local organizations and governments to find opportunities to enrich public and shared spaces.
Avoid treating your garden and green spaces with synthetics. Instead, use organic products and natural solutions such compost to aid soil health and adding beneficial insects that keep pests away like ladybugs and praying mantises.
Fill a shallow bird bath or bowl with clean water, and arrange pebbles and stones inside so that they break the water’s surface. Bees will land on the stones and pebbles to take a long, refreshing drink. This provides them with a necessary break from foraging and collecting nectar.
If nothing else seems to suit you, you can always donate to a local beekeeper or bee conservation organization. Some popular ones include Bee Keepers Association of Southern California, Honey Love - Urban Bee Keepers, and The Honey Bee Conservancy