Think back to summer and imagine the perfect picnic or backyard barbecue. Perhaps there would be steak and veggie kabobs on the grill—and maybe some tortilla chips with salsa and guacamole. Don’t forget lots of juicy watermelon and blackberry pie for dessert, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, of course. At this idyllic outdoor meal, the weather would be picture-perfect, and there would be no buzzing bees or other pesky insects in sight—because you could probably do without them, right?
Well, be careful what you wish for. Because without bees, this perfect picnic meal would be reduced to just meat chunks and plain pie crust. That’s right: no veggies, no tomatoes for the salsa, no avocados for the guac, no berries for your pie, and no vanilla for the ice cream! About 75 percent of the world’s food crops and 90 percent of wild plants depend on pollinators for survival—and some, if not all, of the pollinators are in big trouble.
What’s happening to the bees?
Nature’s pollinators—mostly honeybees, but also bumblebees, native bee species, hummingbirds, bats, butterflies, moths, beetles and more—transfer pollen from one plant to another. This facilitates fertilization, which leads to abundant seed and fruit production. Without these industrious pollinators, the plants would not survive and we would have less fresh food for our tables, as well as fewer plants yielding spices, clothing fibers and essential medicinal ingredients and herbal remedies. Pollination also produces seeds and fruits that birds and other wildlife live on.
It’s an intricate ecological system that has worked quite well for thousands, even millions, of years. But about 10 years ago, beekeepers around the world began noticing something peculiar and foreboding—honeybees that seemed perfectly healthy were abandoning their hives in great numbers, never to return. Scientists, who termed the phenomenon Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), estimate that at least one-third of all honeybee colonies in the United States have disappeared, although other estimates run as high as 50 percent. Some of these experts refer to CCD as “the perfect crime,” because when it happens, there are no bee bodies or other incriminating evidence of any kind to be found. (Most of the research so far has concentrated on honeybees, but agencies like the USDA and the EPA have begun broadening their studies to include all pollinators.)
So, where did they go? Although a scientific cause has not officially been proven, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service believes the devastating losses could be from a combination of factors, including new pests invading the hives, lack of habitat diversity (caused by overdevelopment), scarcity of pollen and nectar sources (possibly because of shorter or earlier growing seasons as a result of climate change), and the effects of harmful pesticides. Although pesticides aren’t being solely blamed for the decline in bee populations, reducing pesticide use is thought to be the easiest way for consumers to make a difference.
The main class of pesticides under fire is neonicotinoids, a commonly used pest-control ingredient that’s chemically related to nicotine. Neonicotinoids, also called neonics, are found in dozens of commonly used household garden-care brands, such as Ortho Bug B Gon, Aloft and Ferti-lome 2-N-1 Systemic, and they are also widely used in commercial farming. (For a comprehensive list, see centerforfoodsafety.org.)
Neonics absorb into all parts of the plant, and even after a single application, they can remain in the soil for years. Though they don’t always kill the bees directly, neonics definitely affect their brain cells, causing disorientation that impairs memory—honeybees can’t find their way back to the hive with food for the colony, which means the colony starves to death, and native bees lose the way back to their nests. Other disastrous effects include compromised immune systems, reduced breeding success, and unhealthy or stillborn baby bees, all of which eventually lead to complete colony loss.
“There is a growing understanding of the problems that native and introduced pollinators face, and why some of their populations have been declining,” says David Inouye, PhD, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Maryland and chair of the steering committee of the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, a collaborative body of more than 140 organizations working to protect North American pollinators. “Pesticides have always been a problem, and researchers are beginning to pin down the problems bees face from the very commonly used neonicotinoid pesticides.”
How you can help
In May of this year, actor Morgan Freeman—alarmed about the plight of the bees and what it might mean for the world’s food supply—transformed his 124-acre estate in Mississippi into a veritable bee haven, bringing in 26 hives and helping his gardener feed the new residents with a sugar-water formula.
During a TV interview with Jimmy Fallon just a few weeks after becoming a beekeeper, Freeman explained that he wanted to be part of the “concerted effort to bring bees back onto the planet. We do not realize, I think, that they are the foundation … of growth on the planet, the vegetation.” He doesn’t even wear protective gear during his beekeeping duties. “I become one with the bees,” he says. “Besides, they’re not going to sting the one who’s feeding them.” (Martha Stewart is also a beekeeper—but she wears the suit.)
Luckily, you don’t have to own vast amounts of property or become a beekeeper to protect pollinators—in fact, you don’t even have to have a yard or garden at all. “Even city dwellers can help the surprisingly diverse and abundant urban bee populations,” Inouye says. Here’s a list of bee-saving tips for rural and urban residents alike:
Eliminate pesticide use. Talk to your local garden center about organic, healthier pest and weed control ideas, such as gentle formulas containing insecticidal soap, vinegar or oils. Also learn about specific plants that attract pest-controlling insects.
Know before you buy. Even if you’re not consciously using harmful pesticides in your yard, you could be bringing them in unknowingly—for example, if you purchase seeds or plants from companies that use them, if your lawn-care or tree company uses them or even if you’re tracking them home on the bottom of your shoes after playing at the park. Ask before you buy; choose organic seeds and plants for your garden that haven’t been treated with pesticides. If you hire someone to work on your property, make sure they’re not using pesticides, either.
Be kind to pollinators. “Planting pollinator-friendly plants in backyards and school yards is one of the easiest contributions to make,” says Inouye. Entice bees and other pollinators to visit your yard by planting a pleasing mix of different flower shapes, colors and scents. Ask your local garden center for a list of beneficial annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees that are native to your specific growing zone. Visit nappc.org for regional planting guides. If you don’t have a yard, consider window boxes or containers on the balcony. In big cities, rooftop gardens are increasingly popular; ask management if this is an option for your building. Also, provide a small shallow dish of fresh, clean water for pollinators.
Don’t cover everything. Nesting female bees need sunny patches of bare ground for raising their young. If everything in the yard is covered with mulch or concrete walkways, there’s nowhere for them to go.
Get kids involved. Demonstrate to children how easy it is to kindly usher bugs back outside when you find them in the house. Remind kids that pollinators, even bees with stingers, won’t hurt anyone if they’re left alone. Encourage little ones to be quiet and gentle around insects of all kinds. Kids of all ages can also help with gardening chores, and older children can talk to their teachers and friends about the plight of pollinators.
Follow Morgan or Martha’s lead. Who knows, you might really enjoy beekeeping! Search online for the beekeepers’ association in your state; some counties and cities also have their own, and they provide assistance to both hobbyist and professional beekeepers.
Spread the word. Talk to neighbors, friends and coworkers about reducing pesticide use. Write letters toyour local newspaper, and discuss the issue via social media. You can also talk to local schools and the parks department and ask them to stop applying pesticides where children and pets play. Visit livingsystemsinst.org to find out what it takes to establish a Bee Safe Neighborhood, or volunteer with a local pollinator-protection organization.