This article is intended to bring attention to local pollinators, and show how focusing on honey bees does not solve "the bee problem".
Managed honey bees are not in decline.
They’re not in true danger. I'll preface this by saying- I’m not a scientist or a botanist. These are my observations from studying this situation over the years.
I have a chart below documenting the total number of colonies in the United States. It does indeed indicate fluctuation in the number of national colonies, but not with enough variance to support colony collapse disorder (CCD) as a widespread threat. It actually shows an increase in the total number of colonies. I believe that the continued awareness regarding pollinators as a whole has been beneficial, but could also have the potential to be used for other agendas. Again, the net publicity has been good- but it can also have some side effects (which I cover a bit later on).
CCD has been strongly linked to the use of neuro-active insecticides on the trees and crops visited by honey bees. Most activists will stop there though, placing the blame solely on insecticides and pesticides. However, evidence strongly links CCD to the constant stress experienced by traveling hives, and the use of them to pollinate a single species repeatedly.
Pollinating a mono-species crop creates a nutrient deficient diet for the hives. The amino acids needed for a balanced bee diet are not found in every type of pollen. Imagine if we only ate a single type of protein, say chicken. We would become malnourished and unhealthy- and the same goes for these hives.
Too many hobbyist hives crowd native pollinators.
Due to the publicity I talked about earlier, many people are becoming interested in supporting pollinators, and many are starting their own backyard hives. This will not fix the problem. The truth is, honey bees aren't native to North America. They are considered an exotic species here.
To further compound the issue, our native pollinator's environments have been segmented or completely removed. In some cases, our local pollinators are starving and weakening in numbers. Many non-native hives can easily outcompete local native pollinators - exacerbating their already precarious situation. These non-native hives can easily steal what little pollen is available for our native pollinators.
Honey bee hives may be necessary for large-scale commercial farming, but they are harmful to the local pollinating insect population as a whole. The National Resources Conservation Service recommends the use of honey bees only as a last resort if the local population does not turn out.
Who are these native pollinators?
Well, bees, right? Interestingly, it's not just bees that pollinate. Moths and butterflies do their fair share too, as do hummingbirds, bats, and beetles. Even the pesky fly can pollinate, and some varieties are even considered beneficial insects. Next time you see a flowering plant covered in insects, take a closer look. Some of the smaller ones that appear at first glance to be flies, are actually one of several varieties of tiny native bees.
Check out this article from the Virginia Cooperative Extension. It talks about the six types of native and solitary bees. These guys are so important! Read up on some great information about carpenter bees, bumble bees, andrenid bees, sweat bees, orchard mason bees, and leafcutter bees.
Plant native, plant for pollinators.
Don't get overwhelmed. You don't need to take massive action to be a hero. Small action by many is what will make a difference. The pollinators we need the most are the ones native to our local landscapes. Unfortunately, for decades landscapes have been focused solely on aesthetics, creating barren concrete jungles, or gardens full of non-native plants that are useless or even harmful to native wildlife. Needless to say, it is crucial to choose plants that are native to our region.
Check out this guide for plant selection. There are so many attractive native trees, shrubs, perennials to choose from.
Check out this tool that the Department of Environmental Quality has put together. It's extremely useful for figuring out what plant you can plug into that empty space in your garden or finding just the right shade plant.
Ways you can encourage local pollinators.
Plant, plant, plant! That's always an excellent place to start. Be on the lookout for a native plant sale somewhere near you (Hampton Roads locals- the Virginia Living Museum and the Poquoson Museum & Learning Garden have events at least once a year, and are also a great place to go for inspiration).
Pollinators have four basic needs: food, shelter, water, and a nesting area.
Build a habitat. Plant some host trees and shrubs, as well as some colorful flowers. Most butterflies, moths have a single or just a few specific plants and/or trees they will lay eggs on. Creating a habitat requires food/leaves for the caterpillars, and pollen/nectar for the butterflies. The same goes for many of these native pollinators. This past summer, our basil plants were a huge hit with the sweat bees, and we had a large number of black swallowtails caterpillars hanging out on our parsley.
Secondly, stop using pesticides and insecticides. Really, just don’t do it. Stop sterilizing your yard by killing every bee, wasp, moth, or other insect you find repugnant. They are necessary. That monthly mosquito service is not worth it. They may kill the pesky blood-suckers, but they also are extremely harmful to all these pollinators. Yes, even the "organic" options are typically just as bad. If you're in doubt, ask the service company to supply a sheet of the insecticides they are using. Check out those active ingredients. Most are not "selective" to the pest only.
Create a brush pile or small waste area in your yard. Most pollinators need a place for shelter. A small pile can create the necessary biodiversity for some of these insects to thrive. These areas will create nesting pockets that are essential to increasing activity.
Have as much fresh, clean water available as possible in your yard. There are many options- a small bird bath, shallow plate, or a small fountain. Go big with a water feature or garden pond. Wildlife is attracted to clean, circulating bodies of water. Whatever you make, just make sure it has easy access points for these little guys to sit without their feet in the water.
If I can answer any questions you have about helping native pollinators in your space, don't hesitate to reach out. In case you can't tell, this is a topic I always enjoy discussing!
Every underlined word in this articles is a link to a document or article I find helpful, from plant selection to a deeper understanding of the issue.
The Department of Environmental Quality's website is full of information.
Local garden clubs often have information and workshops on planting native.
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