A Bit About Bees… and What They Need From Us

The world of bees is our world. If their future looks bleak, so does ours. Taking time to learn about the threats they face and committing to life-supporting actions creates a win-win situation. Illustration by Sonny Solwind

Bees produce one in three bites of our food, and bees are dying. Thirty percent of hives are lost per year and one in four species of native bees is at risk of extinction, according to a fact sheet provided by the Earth Day Network.

This situation is complex and becoming dire, but not yet beyond hope. We can still take action to support our pollinators, but the clock is ticking. Understanding the problems bees face and learning a bit about their needs are the first steps in how we can support them. However, before diving into the exciting things we can do to help, we need to confront the ugly truths about why bees are in trouble. 

Pesticide use remains the number one threat to bees of all varieties. One hundred chemical residues have been found in pollen, according to an article on the Greenpeace website (see Resources).

Next to pesticides comes a double whammy: loss of habitat biodiversity, as grasslands and forests are converted to mono-culture farmlands, where more pesticides are used. 

Another factor is that kept honeybee’s diets are unhealthful, often consisting of junk food in the form of sugar or corn syrup instead of a variety of pollinator plants.

Then there’s the rest: Parasites, pathogens, drought, lack of appropriate food, poor hive management, air pollution, and global warming all threaten the survival of our bees. 

Still, we can make a difference, and every thoughtful action we take matters.

Bees and lavender. Photo by Olivia Ferrari

BEE LIFE BASICS

Understanding some basics of bee life can help those concerned create action plans. First, it isn’t really accurate to discuss “bee life” in the singular sense. Around 1000 species of bees make their homes in Southern California. The most common types here are the bumblebee, the European honeybee, the Africanized honeybee, and the carpenter bee. Despite the popular image of bees flitting around hives, most bees are solitary. 

Some do live in hives, of course, but others burrow into wood or dig underground tunnels. Different species require very specific materials, dimensions, and locations for their homes, making it better to create a natural bee environment than to purchase a pre-made bee dwelling from the internet or garden store. Though some bee-hotels might be well made, many are not. Poorly designed structures either don’t attract bees at all, or if they do, might also invite predators who kill the babies developing inside. 

THE WELL-PLANNED GARDEN

Rather than purchasing gadgets, consider providing a well-planned garden, with plants that flower throughout the year. Doing so gives bees much of what they need to thrive. 

“Their lives consist of two seasons, the flow and the dearth,” explains Olivia Ferrari, a Topanga Canyon beekeeper and rescuer. During the flow, nectar sources are in full bloom. It’s a time of plenty. When the dearth season rolls around, bees live on their stored reserves. It may come as a surprise, but bees do not actually produce their honey, pollen, and royal jelly for humans. These precious commodities belong to the bees, ensuring they survive the winter. 

The Los Angeles area’s moderate climate, and the ability in most areas to provide at least some water year-round, allows for an extended time of flow. The selection of native plants makes it possible to conserve water while providing a bounty of blooms from season to season. There’s an additional benefit to planting indigenous species, according to Ferrari. 

“The bees will be grateful,” she says. “Imagine the baby bee being fed the pollen and honey made from local plants. The baby dreams of those exact flowers, and when it emerges to set out to collect nectar and pollen for the hive, those are the flowers it will look for.” 

Who doesn’t want to fulfill the dreams of baby bees?

California offers an abundance of native options to choose from. For example, white, purple, and black sage provide nectar during the spring and summer. Palmer’s Indian mallow, desert mallow, and mountain bee balm (Monardia) all bloom from spring through fall. And don’t forget the sturdy seaside daisy, which is a year-round plant. When in doubt, ask the staff at a good local nursery for guidance.

If you want to turn your hunt for the perfect flora into an adventure, visit the Theodore Payne Foundation, a 501(c)(3), whose goal is preserving native plants and educating Southern Californians about their “beauty and ecological benefits.” The foundation maintains a garden, sells plants and seeds, and offers classes for both children and adults, among other things. You can visit in person at 10459 Tuxford Street in Sun Valley or explore their offerings at theodorepayne.org. The website even offers a downloadable pamphlet about bee-friendly plants under the “Learn” tab.

After locating a source for plants, consider your space. Bee lovers with yards may start by converting existing flower beds into pollinator supporting areas. The super motivated might take the plunge by removing grass and designing an entire landscape to attract bees and other visitors, like butterflies and hummingbirds. In addition to providing food, a home garden can also offer natural housing for bees. Leaving areas where soil can be reached, allowing twigs and reeds to pile, and even providing patches of mud, help solitary bees find a place to call home, according to the UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab. They also suggest providing oak barrels filled with soil and sand to allow ground burrowing bees a place to nest that won’t be disturbed. 

If you don’t have a yard, don’t feel left out. Consider a balcony or window box herb garden. Rosemary, mint, sage, and thyme will grow in containers, and bees love them. So will  you when you snip a sprig now and again to cook with. Your tiny friends won’t mind a bit.

In addition to a food supply, pollinators also need water. Providing drinking sources is especially important in areas prone to drought. Shallow bowls or bird baths, with a layer of pebbles, shells, or twigs for little bees to land on, add wonderful focal points to the garden and ensure winged visitors will make it through the dry times. 

Young bees prepping for practice flights. Photo by Olivia Ferrari

REMOVING THREATS

Of course, the bees require more from us than a bounty of blooms and a sip of clean water. They need us to remove the bigger threats to their survival. The use of toxic pesticides must be stopped. Never use them in your own garden, and before switching to more bee-friendly versions, consider whether you need anything at all. Is the damage being done by other critters really intolerable? If so, an online search will bring up lists of nontoxic pesticides (see Resources).

If bees swarm into an area where they cannot stay, don’t call an exterminator. Search for a humane bee rescue group to move them to a suitable environment where they can happily produce future generations.

Once your garden is buzzing, it will pay you back. Take a moment in it each day to witness the dance of life as the bees go about their work, adding to the beauty of your world.

RESOURCES

 

Kait Leonard
Kait Leonard

Kait Leonard, Ph.D., holds graduate degrees in literature and psychology. She shares her home with five parrots and her American bulldog, Seeger. Her writing interests include psychology, holistic wellness for both people and animals, and whatever human interest topics cross her path.

2 Comments
  1. Great article. I have California poppies in my yard and the bees seem to like those. It’s really disturbing that the Trump administration has both legalized the use of pesticides that are harmful to bees as well as shutting down scientific studies about bees.

  2. I learned a lot about bees from this insightful and well-written article. I love Kait’s “voice” as a writer, and I look forward to seeing more of her work.

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