10 Things YOU Can Do to Save the Honeybees
(Edited version originally published in Collective Wisdom Magazine, Spring 2020)
By Sara Stewart Martinelli
It is the summer of 2020, and across the world we are feeling battered, fearful, and powerless. In addition to facing a global pandemic, widespread protesting, and racial and social injustice, we’re bombarded with messages of doom and gloom. From a crashing stock market to global warming, it all feels like impending Armageddon.
Although at first I thought it was some kind of satiric joke, the unbelievable and somewhat fantastical news about a Murder Hornet being spotted in the western USA adds to the list of threats. This giant Asian hornet attacks honeybees in a terrifying and violent way that sounds like a plot to an entomology horror movie. The poor honeybees just can’t catch a break. For decades honeybees have been dealing with the loss of their habitat, the fatal neonicotinoid pesticide, and Colony Collapse Disorder an as-yet unexplained phenomenon of the majority of working bees vanishing from the hive. And now, they also have to face an almost unbelievable, horror-film-like enemy: The Murder Hornet.
Bees teach us a lot, especially in times like these where we are finding our realities challenged. Bees are industrious, and willing to work together for the good of the whole community. The each have a function, and a healthy hive depends on every bee doing their part.
The honeybees offer immeasurable gifts to us as humans; delicious, healing, and useful products that enrich our lives. Their daily work pollinates the foods we eat, and right now, they need our support more than ever. Small, thoughtful, and intentional actions by each of us DO make a difference. Here are just a few things that you can do to protect, support, and encourage honeybees and conservation efforts.
1. Plant Your Garden to Ensure Flowers Every Season
Beekeepers often feed their bees artificial food made of sugar water to ensure that they have food even when flowers are not prevalent in the landscape. Considering the bloom time of ornamental (or wild) plants as you plan your garden and landscape can extend the food source for the honeybee. In early spring, we see trees blooming and the pollen of trees is one of the first early spring foods for the bees. Plant fruit trees or flowering shrubs, and both you and the bees can enjoy the fruits! Bees need dandelions in the early spring (don’t get me started on dandelions! In short, they are great – a gift to the earth. Leave them alone.) Early spring bulbs in your garden like crocus, snowdrops, daffodils, tulips, and hyacinth can create an amazing colorful early spring buffet for the bees. Summer is easy, and there is are endless numbers of bee-friendly plants such as herbs, borage, geraniums, cleome, poppy, roses, and more. But in fall, we have to work a little harder, but consider sunflower, chrysanthemum, calendula, California poppy, cornflowers, or cosmos.
2. Leave Beneficial Wild Plants Alone
We classify something as a weed when it is growing in a place that we didn’t invite it, or when it’s growth negatively impacts a plant that we want to cultivate. But nature doesn’t determine a plant’s worth the same way. Bees love all flowers, including those of many plants that humans often try hard to eradicate. Dandelions, mallow flowers, bindweed, thistle are all flowers that we can leave in the garden to offer the bees food. Can’t stand to see your weeds among your garden plants? Consider leaving the weed alone until the flowering stage is over (but before it drops it’s seeds) before you pull it. When we view a “weed” through a different lens, it can become quite beautiful. When I learned that thistle often grows where the earth has been disturbed in order to provide strength and nutrition to the soil, and that they are extremely valuable sources of nourishment for bees, butterflies, goldfinches, and other pollinators, their seeds feed birds, and the downy seed heads provide lining for birds’ nests, I started to view them with a different perspective. Suddenly, they are beautiful, nourishing, and actually inspiring.
3. Buy Organic, Avoid Pesticide and Refuse to Support Nurseries that Sell Plants on which They Have Been Used
Neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide once widely used on farms, commercial nurseries, and urban landscapes are absorbed by the plants. These pesticides can be present in the nectar and pollen of these plants, and in turn, be toxic to honeybees by shutting down their nervous system, as well as interfering with bee communication which is reliant on chemical and physical signals. Additionally, pesticides have been shown to change foraging behavior, disrupt larval development, and lower the bees’ immune systems, making them vulnerable to bacteria and other parasites. Scientists believe that the use of pesticides is a major contributing factor to the decline of the honeybee population worldwide. Choosing to purchase both organic produce and organically grown nursery plants supports the efforts to reduce pesticide use.
4. Welcome Beneficial Insects to Control other Pests
Creating an environment that is welcoming to spiders, ladybugs, praying mantis or other beneficial insects will help balance the ecosystem and support the health of both the flora and the fauna. Like weeds, we need to see insects in the garden as integral and necessary parts of the entire system, and we need to learn that just our classifications of “good and bad” insects is a human construct. We see certain insects or animals as “bad” because they eat things that we don’t want them to eat. They make holes in the leaves of our herbs or steal our arugula. (Have you ever heard a gardener lamenting the evil rabbits who gorge in their garden? This is the same animal that we revere at Easter!) It’s about perspective and learning to live in balance. Find ways to naturally encourage the insects that have beneficial behaviors to your garden, such as eating the insects who might damage your plants. This of course, naturally makes the environment less attractive to the insects that you want to avoid, and makes your garden less hospitable to damaging pests.
5. Learn to Identify a Yellowjacket or Wasp versus a Honeybee
People often confuse a yellowjacket with a honeybee and accidentally harm honeybees in efforts to control wasps. The yellowjacket is distinguished from the honeybee by their defined yellow or white markings and lack of any body hairs (which bees use to gather pollen) and tend to be narrower with a pinched waist. Although I have tried for years to find some kind of beauty in them, it’s difficult when they sting (far more painfully than a bee), build huge houses in the barn (goats also seem to hate them) and can be aggressive and territorial. But yellowjackets and wasps do serve important functions in the environment. They are “detritivores”, or scavengers, meaning they clean up dead plant and animal materials, and they are also predators of many pest insects. Still, yellowjackets also attack honeybee colonies, stealing both the bees, and the honey, and beekeepers work hard to keep the wasps out of the hives. If you do choose to hang traps for wasps, make sure that the bait used is not also going to attract a honeybee. Commercial wasp traps use heptyl butyrate, and homemade traps should use meat. Hang traps far from hives, as it could lure the wasps toward the hives.
6. Create a Bee Bath
Bees need a ready source of water to replenish moisture during their busy days. Unlike many insects who can absorb water from their food, bees actually drink water and use it to make honey and cool the hive. Add a bee bath to your garden for a beautiful and beneficial garden adornment. Fill a shallow bowl with small stones or colorful marbles and fill with just enough water to cover the stones. The water needs to be shallow enough so that the bees won’t drown. These hardworking bees can land on the stones and get a cool drink of water during the heat of the day, and you’ll have a lovely spot from which to watch one of nature’s most industrious creatures.
7. Purchase Honey from Local Beekeepers and Farmers
In addition to the benefit of supporting your local farmers and supporting the population of your local honeybees, local honey has been shown to be one of our best remedies for seasonal allergies. By eating raw local honey, you are slowly exposing yourself to small amounts of the pollen that often causes seasonal allergies. In essence, it’s like a natural “allergy” shot, in small, delicious, manageable doses. Raw local honey can help reduce the length of a cold, soothe as sore throat, and fight bacteria. Supporting local honey also supports your local environment by keeping bees pollinating the farms and gardens in your area.
8. Call a Beekeeper if you have a Swarm or Beehive to Remove.
Rather than calling a pest control, who may just come and destroy the hive, call a local beekeeper to come remove it for you. You’ll probably be able to get the service for free, and you’ll save a lot of bees in the process. Additionally, you’ll save the beekeeper the cost of purchasing a new colony of bees! Win, Win, Win all around! You’ll be shocked if you just post on your local social media page that you need help with a swarm or hive how quickly and how many people will step right up.
9. Purchase Handmade Products made from Real Honey, Comb, and Wax.
There’s a wide range of delicious and useful products made from the gifts of the honeybee. Of course, their greatest gift, honey, tops the list, but nothing could be more delicious than fresh honeycomb served with a charcuterie or vegetable tray. Sample and buy some honey mead made from a local meadery for an indulgent, alcoholic treat. Beeswax candles are pure, burn clean and are hypoallergenic, and they smell delightful. In addition to lasting longer than a commercial candle, they may improve the air quality of your home! They make excellent gifts, perfect for a hostess gift or other social occasions. Used in beauty and skin products, beeswax both hydrates, soothes, and conditions the skin. Look for handmade medicines and beauty products, which are often made with locally grown herbs, honey, and beeswax. Support your local crafters who work with the gifts of the honeybee, or better yet, learn to make these products yourself!
10. Support Conservation Efforts and Sustainable Farming Practices
Donate to organizations devoted to bees or other pollinators, like the Xerxes Society, The Honeybee Conservancy, or Friends of the Earth. These organizations, and others like them focus on conservation, habitat protection, and reducing pesticide use and their efforts to advocate for the honeybees are bringing the issues to the forefront of conservation programs. On a local level, show your support by offering to sponsor a local hive or beekeeper. Reach out to a local beekeeper and see if you can offer a donation to help cover the costs of beekeeping, and maybe you can get a small share of the honey after the harvest. Reduce your own carbon footprint and support local agriculture, making the world better and cleaner for the bees. Help dispel myths about bees and use social media to spread good PR for the bees. People are learning how these little creatures are imperative to the earth, and attitudes toward them are changing.
Of course, the ultimate thing you can do save the bees?
Become a beekeeper yourself!
Organizations to Support Pollinators
American Beekeeping Foundation www.abfnet.org
The Honeybee Conservancy https://thehoneybeeconservancy.org/
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation https://www.xerces.org/
Friends of the Earth https://foe.org/projects/bee-action/