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Bees do more than produce delicious honey. Honey bees and native bees alike are an important part of our food system because of the role they play in pollinating agricultural crops.
Over half of the nation’s 2.66 million honey bee colonies are used to pollinate crops including apples, melons, squash, and tomatoes. Some crops, like almonds, cherries, and blueberries, could disappear completely without bees to pollinate their flowers.
In addition to managed honey bee colonies, there are 4,000 species of native bees in North America and Hawaii alone. These wild bees don’t usually live in hives, preferring instead to burrow underground or make nests in wood, but they’re still important pollinators for crops and native plants.
Unfortunately, both honey bee and native bee populations are declining at an alarming rate. Annual honey bee hive losses are nearing 50 percent — a number that usually hovers around 10 to 15 percent. Meanwhile, more than 700 native bee species are experiencing population decline, and half of those are nearing extinction.
The threats to honey bees today are vast. Urbanization replaces wildlife habitat with pavement, buildings, and cropped grass lawns. Monocultural farming practices create expansive acres without a flower in sight. Transportation leaves honey bees vulnerable to parasites and diseases. Widespread use of pesticides in commercial, residential, and agricultural applications exposes foraging bees to toxic chemicals. And the availability of cheap imported honey leaves local beekeepers without the customer base they need to remain viable.
What does that mean for the average consumer? Without bees, food available at grocery stores and farmers markets won’t only be less diverse, it’ll also be more expensive. With fewer bees, farmers will have to weigh whether to produce less food on the same amount of land or pay high prices for pollination by a limited number of commercial beehives.
If you like having all sorts of food at your fingertips — at prices you can afford — it’s in your best interest to look out for the nation’s bees. And thankfully, it’s not hard to do. With just a few changes your lifestyle can be more bee-friendly. Here’s where to start:
1. Stop Using Pesticides
Pesticides, a category that includes herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides, pose a major threat to bees. Repeated contact with pesticides, like when foraging a patch of treated flowers, can impact bees’ ability to reproduce. And it’s not just industrial-strength pesticides: Chemicals you spray around your home can harm bees, so forgo pesticides in your lawn, garden, and home.
2. Buy Pesticide-Free Foods
Most conventional farmers use pesticides to prevent crop damage. Continue your pesticide boycott by opting for produce grown without pesticides. While some organic farmers grow without pesticides, others use organic sprays that could still harm bees. Shop from farmers and companies that are transparent about their growing practices. Pesticide-free producers are also more likely to eschew monoculture and use ecological practices instead.
3. Plant a Pollinator Garden
To do even more to help bees, plant a pollinator garden in your backyard, on your patio, or on your balcony. A pollinator garden attracts bees, butterflies, and birds by featuring the native plants they like to feed on. While a big backyard garden might feature nesting sites, water features, and a diverse assortment of flowering plants, a smaller pollinator garden can be a few containers of wildflowers and herbs on a balcony.
To get started, pick a sunny spot that gets at least six hours of sun per day. If you’re planting in the ground, you may need to break up the soil by tilling. Container gardens require more up-front investment for pots and soil but are easier to set up. Talk to a local garden center about the right native plants to install in your garden; the best pollinator gardens feature a mix of wildflowers, shrubs, trees, and grasses, with at least one plant blooming in each season for year-round foraging. Here are some more tips for gardening in small spaces.
Whether you choose to start with better buying habits or dive right into planting a pollinator garden, every step to save bees is worth the effort. Your environment, your dinner plate, and your wallet will all thank you.