Despite the bad news about honey bees, there is a tremendous amount you can do. Here is my take on it. Many of these steps also help other pollinators too, such as native bees and butterflies. You can add the buzz back to your yard.
1. No chemicals
This one is pretty important. We could do a lot of great things for bees, but if we are also exposing them to harmful chemicals, it could undermine everything else we do. If you have already gone 100% organic, bravo. But many of us have room for improvement here. On a per acre basis, American homeowners use 10 times more pesticides than what is used on U.S. farms. On our lawns alone, U.S. homeowners apply 80 million tons of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
Neonicotinoids have become the obvious pesticide we need to stop using (and lately it has been getting a lot of the press coverage), but all herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides are potentially problematic. Why? A simple answer to this is that pesticides are designed to kill insects and honey bees are insects. Also when we use herbicides we kill off the weeds that honey bees could eat from.
In addition, we often don’t fully understand the complete chemical effect of our actions. Little to no testing is typically done before a chemical enters the market. Long term studies are not done. Often products contain more than one chemical. Scientists know that when chemicals combine, there is potential for synergy. Synergy is when two chemicals combine to create a different effect, often worse, than the original ingredients. Scientists acknowledge that synergy is happening in our environment, yet we don’t have a good handle on the effects because it is not routinely studied or tested.
Of course you don’t need the chemicals. You can have a beautiful yard, a chemical-free haven, and it will definitely be healthier–for you and the bees.
2. Offer bee flowers
This may be the most fun step of them all. Plant flowers! All flowers are not created equal. Let’s focus on the flowers that provide great nutrition for our bees and pollinators. Some superstar flowers by season are:
- Spring-crocus, snowdrops, scilla, winter aconite, fruit trees, crabapple tree, pussy willow, maple tree, gooseberries, holly, hazelnut, oak leaved hydrangea, Chinese tulip tree, Washington Hawthorn
- Summer-phacelia, borage, cosmos, sunflower, alliums, echium, catmint, salvia, button bush, black locust tree, blackberry, mountain ash tree, hollyhock, clethra, and most herbs, including dill, oregano, thyme, and basil
- Late Summer-golden honey plant, anise hyssop, swamp milkweed, caryopteris, joe pye weed, Russian sage, ironweed, chaste tree, English ivy
- Fall-sedum (‘Autumn joy’ is their favorite), alliums, goldenrod, aster
Once you have decided on the flowers you want for your yard, plant lots of them! They won’t see or won’t bother with small patches of flowers. So instead of buying just a few plants, go bigger. Shoot for a square yard at minimum.
Add variety. Just like us, bees need a diet with variety. Optimize foraging by providing flowers for every season.
3. Keep the weeds
We Americans have been trained by our culture to get rid of weeds. But flowering weeds such as dandelions, clover, and milkweed can be a food bonanza for the bees. Try to leave them, or create a “weed/wildflower area” in your yard, where wildflowers are allowed to “bee”.
4. Provide water
Just like all other creatures, bees need water. Native bees drink it for themselves. Honey bees drink it for themselves, while also saving some in their crop to bring back to the hive. At the hive, the water is used for a variety of purposes, including feeding larvae and worker bees, and regulating the temperature of the hive in hot weather.
Providing shallow water sources can help. Bird baths work well. But honey bees are not good swimmers and can drown if they fall or land in the water. (It is pretty awful to check your water and find dead bees in it.) To avoid this, I put a few rocks, sticks, and even corks in the water. See the photo below for another idea! This gives them something to hang onto in case they fall in. During hot weather you may need to refill the water source daily.
5. Buy organic food, if possible
Your purchases support organic farms. Organic agriculture is good for bees and pollinators.
6. Buy local, raw honey
Raw honey is a better quality product and tastes amazing. You support your local beekeeper which is good for beekeeping.
7. Create solutions with friends
Often the solutions we achieve are greater when we work together with others. For example, planting bee-friendly plants with your neighbor on each side of a common boundary maximizes your efforts. Together as a group, could you organize politically to create a bee-friendly town?
8. Become a beekeeper
This can be a great way to get involved with honey bees. See my post 10 Great Reasons to Become a Beekeeper.
9. Get political
We need to remind our elected officials at the state and national levels how important it is to save the bees.
10. Teach children all about bees.
Helping the bees is a satisfying project for your life and home. We save the bees and we save ourselves.