Not everyone can be a beekeeper, but everyone can keep bees. Thirty-five percent of the world’s crop production depends on pollinators, with bees pollinating approximately 75 percent of the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the United States. Bees are also in danger. The steep decline of pollinator populations has been identified as a serious risk to global food production, with some species recently added to the endangered species list.
There are ways to preserve our incredibly important pollinator population and keep bees in your yard. And it doesn’t require a hive or a beekeeper’s veil. Try these four ways to keep bees at your home.
Holm Design & Consulting LLC, original photo on Houzz
Honeybees are one of 20,000 bee species in the world. The rest are mostly native, nonaggressive, solitary bees perfectly adapted to their specific climate. While honeybees are efficient pollinators, with tens of thousands of bees from a single hive visiting hundreds of thousands of flowers each day, native bees are “two to three times better” pollinators than honeybees, says Cornell University entomology Professor Dr. Bryan Danforth. They also are more likely to endure the climate of their native habitat, including rain, wind and low temperatures, which may be unsuitable for the European honeybee. Native bees, such as this metallic green sweat bee, come in a variety of sizes and jewel-like colors.
Urban Hedgerow, original photo on Houzz
You can put a native bee house in your yard, providing much needed shelter for the insects, whose habitat is dwindling. These bee houses are easy to install and take up little space. This native pollinator habitat designed by Urban Hedgerow hangs on a wall and creates a refuge for wild nesting bees, ladybugs, lacewings and other crucial pollinators.
“Of all the bees native to North America, about 30 percent use some kind of tunnel in which to lay their eggs,” the Native Bee Conservancy says on its website. “The diameter of the tunnels, as well as their preferred length, varies with the different species of bee. So, to attract a wide variety of native bees, it is best to use a wide variety of tunnel sizes.”
Native pollinator habitats can create a refuge for wildlife while also providing a colorful trellis for growing plants. The habitats should face south to entice bees. Be sure to use untreated wood or bamboo tubes. If possible, line the tubes with rolled paper or straws so they can be cleaned out each year to prevent accumulation of parasites.
You also can create a loose collection of materials that can be easily cleaned out and replenished each year.
Planting flowers for bees is by far the most enjoyable and most crucial step you can take to boost our bee population. Dr. Marla Spivak, who researches the importance of pollinator habitat in urban landscapes, gave this advice in a June 2013 TED Talk on why bees are disappearing: “Every one of you out there can help bees in two very direct and easy ways: Plant bee-friendly flowers, and don’t contaminate these flowers, this bee food, with pesticides.”
If just 10 percent of our outdoor space fed bees, think about the potential impact we could have on the local bee population. If you have a patio, plant flowers in a pot. If you have a larger yard, you can make it a fun meadow of flowers or native plants.
Creatively planting food for bees can benefit both bees and people. Our San Jose, California, backyard has a wall of acacia trees (<em>Acacia iteaphylla</em>) that are drought-tolerant and also create yellow puffs of flowers to feed our bees and native pollinators in late winter when most forage is gone. Acacia nectar also makes some of the best-tasting honey available. When it isn’t blooming, the acacia creates a silver-blue privacy wall and living backdrop for our summer barbecues.
Jocelyn H. Chilvers, original photo on Houzz
Planting cover crops for the empty areas of your yard is another great way to offer food for bees and suppress weeds. As Benjamin Vogt mentions in his article about weeds,“Nature desires rich layers and no fertile space left unfilled.” Plant clover, such as this purple prairie clover (<em>Dalea purpurea</em>, USDA zones 3 to 9), which feeds bees and boosts the nitrogen of your soil. Renee’s Garden also sells a pollinator mix that can be easily sprinkled and watered to create an instant meadow.
Todd Halman Landscape Design, original photo on Houzz
Meadow lawns are a beautiful way to create a mass of food for bees. In California we’ve had many lawns die during the drought, and with them the need for perfectly manicured grass. An alternative is a meadow lawn, which offers the benefits of a lawn and a wildflower meadow at the same time. If you have children who run barefoot through the grass, this may not be a good option since the plentiful flowers increase the chance of accidentally stepping on a bee. This orchard’s meadow lawn shows how a meadow and lawn are blended together while preserving the native flowers and habitat.
If feeding bees is important, so is making sure their food isn’t poisoned. One of the most important ways to keep bees thriving is to avoid using pesticides and herbicides that kill and weaken bees. Neonicotinoids, in particular, attack an insect’s nervous system and have been linked to Colony Collapse Disorder, the epidemic that is wiping out honeybees across the globe. It is heartbreaking to see an entire colony of bees that have been poisoned by pesticides, dying on the ground in front of a hive. Even in small doses, pesticides weaken bees’ immune responses, making them vulnerable to disease and varroa mites.
By using plants treated with long-lasting neonicotinoids, we’re poisoning bees’ food sources and endangering their health, as well as our own.
We have chosen not to use pesticides in our yard out of concern for our family’s health. We eat food from our yard and play in our yard. It’s been beneficial for our entire family, as well as our dog (who runs and chews on all the plants), the chickens who graze on the grass and make our eggs, and our bees and native pollinators. It’s also allowed the natural flora and beneficial bacteria to grow in our garden.
That said, I really do not like weeds, and sometimes I just want to reach for a bottle of weedkiller. As I write this, I am in the middle of a battle with bindweed, a pernicious, vining weed that has taken over part of our urban homestead and is slowly strangling my giant pumpkin plants. Part of controlling weeds is knowing why your garden may have weeds in the first place. Check out many of the articles on Houzz on ways to tackle weeds without the use of pesticides.
JKehoe_Photos, original photo on Houzz
When choosing your flowers, make sure your plants are free of pesticides by looking for “neonicotinoid free” labels on plants at the nursery. Flowers rich in nectar and pollen are always a good choice. Those flowers are usually the ones with the most bees buzzing around them at the nursery.
Choosing flowers for their pollen color is another fun way to enjoy bees in your yard. You can watch bees collect many different colors of pollen from the flowers in your yard, such as the bee with the blue pollen in this photo.
Modern Hive, original photo on Houzz
A swarm of honeybees. This fear rates right up there with shark attacks and public speaking. While a swarm may look and sound scary, it’s just a group of bees looking for a new home. Bees in swarms usually have bellies full of honey because they are packing their bags and resources for their new home. Their only concern is trying to stay in a group and follow their queen, much like a group of kindergartners following their teacher on a field trip.
Here you can see them “holding hands,” or festooning, in their swarm. The bees really just want to stay together. The last thing they want to do is sting you —unless they are threatened.
If you find a swarm of bees, please don’t approach it. And definitely don’t kill the bees. Call a local experienced beekeeper or rescue beekeeping service that will capture and move them to a home where they are wanted. Most beekeepers are happy to remove a swarm because it’s a free set of bees with strong genetics that have survived the winter. Do a quick online search on “bee rescue” or “local beekeeper” to find someone to remove your swarm.
Saving swarms, rather than exterminating them, means you are saving the life of a future colony of honeybees. Similar to an animal shelter, rescue beekeepers will find a new home for bees where they can thrive, instead of being a nuisance, and bring joy to their new foster family. In fact, this is how our family began beekeeping.
Keeping bees in your yard, and keeping them healthy and alive in the environment, doesn’t require a bee suit or an investment in expensive equipment. By creating a habitat with plenty of bee food that’s free of pesticides, you will be doing some of the most important work of preserving our bees and helping our pollinator population and our environment.