Why we need bees, plus 5 ways you can help them!

If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left.” - Maurice Maeterlinck, The Life of a Bee

May 20th is World Bee Day, so let’s talk bees!

Virtually every plant on Earth requires pollination of some sort. While some are self-pollinating and some can be fertilized by pollen that is transported by wind, many plants rely on pollinators like bees. Approximately 90% of wildflowers and 80% of agricultural crops depend on animals to act as pollen couriers. Berries, tomatoes, melons, and avocados are just a few of the common crops that rely specifically on bee pollination. In North America alone, we harvest and consume billions of dollars worth of crops every single year that exist only because of bees’ hard work.

If you’re wondering exactly how bees contribute to your morning smoothie, you’re in luck because I made this handy infographic!

The Bee Pollination Process

Many of us grew up swatting at and running away from bees in fear that they’d sting us. However, unlike their angrier (but still ecologically important) cousins, wasps and hornets, bees are usually docile and only sting when they feel scared. Stinging a human is a kamikaze mission; bees don’t survive after using their stingers, so they’ll only sting if they sense a threat to their hive or colony. If you notice bees swarming around, it likely means you are close to a hive and should relocate yourself. Remember, you’re in their hood, not the other way around and we need to do everything we can to protect the bees we encounter.

Bees are going extinct at a dangerous rate. Habitat destruction is a major contributing factor to the decline in bee populations. Of course, urbanization is a huge piece of this—clear-cutting land to build on directly destroys bee homes. With urbanization comes population growth, which must be sustained agriculturally. Small, diverse farms are great for bees, but vast single-crop and livestock farms don’t provide enough variety for bees to thrive. And on top of this, wildfires, which are amplifying every year due to climate change, destroy hives and food sources.

Major bummer, right? Let’s get off the track of what’s endangering our bees, and onto ways we can help them. Here are:

1. Make your garden bee-friendly

You can make your garden or patio a bee haven by planting wildflowers and providing a bee hydration station. The ideal bee-friendly garden includes flowers that are native to your area, rather than exotic blossoms. If you have patience and a green thumb, planting a variety of flowers that bloom during different seasons will help keep your bees happy year-round. Pollinating is hard work, so make a bee bath for your friends to hydrate themselves. Fill a plate or shallow bowl with clean water, and add a few stones and leaves so the bees have a place to sit while they drink. Make sure to replace the water every couple of days so nothing icky starts to grow in it.

The David Suzuki foundation has an excellent guide on how to create a bee sanctuary

2. Avoid harmful pesticides

Pesticides vary in toxicity to bees. While some are relatively harmless, many are acutely toxic and can cause a variety of symptoms ranging from vomiting to paralysis to death. Pesticides are also considered to be the main contributing factor in Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). CCD is when worker bees ditch their hive and ghost their queen (rude!). With no more nectar being brought into the hive, the remaining bees perish.

Contrary to popular belief, organic produce is not necessarily pesticide-free. While many organic pesticides are safer for us and for bees, that does not mean they are all non-toxic. If it’s accessible to you, try buying local produce from farmer’s markets, or even growing your own in your garden!

EWG lists the “dirty dozen” foods that use toxic pesticides here

3. Purchase honey from local beekeepers

If you are someone who consumes honey, skip that plastic bear that hangs out next to the peanut butter in the grocery store and find a local beekeeper to buy from. Mass-production apiaries harvest every ounce of honey from a hive, leaving the bees with nothing to eat. They are fed sugar water or corn syrup as a substitute for the honey they should be consuming, but this does not provide them with enough energy or nutrients and often these bees die of malnutrition when winter comes.

Ethical beekeepers work with local farms and orchards so the bees can eat, drink, and pollinate to their little hearts content. Not only do the bees get a fresh supply of food, but they also help crops grow through pollination. When the beekeeper harvests the honey, they leave plenty for the bees to eat so they don’t have to supplement their diet with sugar water. The bees are well taken care of and can thrive, the farms benefit from the bees' work, and we can buy the happy honey to help the beekeepers continue the cycle.

How Ethical Beekeepers Help Bees

Your local farmer’s market is a great place to look for quality honey, and they are usually more than happy for you to pick their brains about their beekeeping practices!

Read more ethical honey on Greenopedia

4. Contribute to ecological conservation and restoration projects

It’s no secret that climate change poses a threat to our life on Earth. We are already seeing its effects on nature and wildlife, and we know the danger is growing.Thankfully, there are a lot of very smart people all over the world who have initiated incredible projects to combat the effects of global warming and protect our natural world, including conservation projects to help protect the biodiversity we still have, and restoration projects to help rebuild it. Some of these projects are huge initiatives, like the 8 international eco-restoration projects that Global Citizen has written about here. There are also many smaller, local groups looking to make a difference in their communities, such as Echo Ecological here in Vancouver. Find some projects in your community that are looking for contributions. If financial contribution isn’t available to you, many projects need volunteers to help with their work. Or just grab a garbage bag and a friend, and head to your local beach or park to clean up litter!

5. Knowledge is power!

Many people have no idea about the dangers bees are facing these days. We are busy with our lives, and reading up about bee welfare doesn’t top most people’s list of preferred after-work activities. But, you’re here and you took time out of your day to read this blog! You’re armed with some information to start up a conversation. No, I don’t expect you to call up your bestie and say “hey, can we chat about bees for a sec?” But maybe next time you’re making her dinner, you can mention the local produce you’re cooking, or the bee-friendly wine you bought. When you’re having a picnic with your significant other and you encounter some bees, talk to them about why you should move to protect the bees' space. When you give your mom the Drinking Dog candle you got her for her birthday, let her know why you chose soy wax over beeswax or paraffin.

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